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Is television news dumbing down? New study will investigate what’s happening to TV news agendas

26 July 2010

Changing patterns of UK television news content 1975-2009. A project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, 2010/11.

Prof Steven Barnett, University of Westminster and Prof Ivor Gaber, University of Bedfordshire.

In a world where all the talk is of convergence, super-fast broadband, an information revolution and the online society, it is easy to lose sight of the power and significance of traditional media in people’s everyday lives. While it is certainly true that newspaper circulation is in rapid decline, both television and radio remain as popular as ever.

This is particularly true for television’s dominant position in news. Despite the fragmentation of television channels and the rise of online and non-linear forms of watching TV, the main television news bulletins on the public service terrestrial channels remain by far the most important source of national and international news for UK citizens.

Research published by Ofcom last year showed that the proportion of the population citing television as their main source for national news has actually risen in the last five years from 70% to 74%. Despite the myriad opportunities to access news through citizen websites, blogs, social networking, Twitter feeds and other forms of online and mobile transmission, only 6 per cent of the UK population identify the internet as their main source of news.

Not only does television remain a vital conduit for information about the outside world, but recent research also suggests it is particularly effective at reducing the knowledge gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged, thus contributing to a more equitable pattern of citizenship.

Such citizen benefits, however, only accrue if the news in question is sufficiently serious, informative and accessible to viewers. While much has been made of a tendency towards “dumbing down” and the growing economic pressures on news suppliers to cut costs and increase their entertainment quotient, there has been very little systematic study of what is actually happening to news agendas on terrestrial television. Are they indeed succumbing to what are interpreted by many as the downward pressure of market forces? Or have they sustained the balanced journalistic agendas which had certainly survived until the beginning of this century?

This research project is designed to answer those questions and will update a study that we first undertook ten years ago, analysing the changing nature of national and international news content on mainstream UK television.

Our original work stretched back to 1975 and provided data on trends to 1999. Our new study will apply the same sampling and analysis techniques to the television news output of 2004 and 2009, thus bringing up to date.

The television sector has witnessed some huge economic and structural upheavals over the last ten years, in both the commercial sector and the BBC. This study will provide us with reliable and current information on how those changes have impacted on television news agendas, giving us a unique picture of how the most influential and dominant form of news transmission has evolved over 35 years.

Ends

 

Notes to Editors:

The Leverhulme Trust was established in 1925 under the Will of the first Viscount Leverhulme. It is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing funds of some £50 million every year. For further information about the schemes that the Leverhulme Trust fund visit their website at www.leverhulme.ac.uk


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