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Television News in Britain is not “dumbing down”, says independent study

12 January 2012

Television news on the main UK domestic channels is continuing to provide viewers with a comprehensive and serious account of the day’s national and international events, according to a new, independent study published today (12 January 2012).

The study From Callaghan to Credit Crunch is the most comprehensive survey of UK television news ever undertaken, examining changing trends in news content over a 35 year period.

It reveals that between 1975 and 2009, despite huge technological and economic upheavals in broadcasting over four decades, there is no evidence of a significant shift towards a tabloid agenda in the main evening news bulletins. Throughout that time, the proportion of serious news carried by the main BBC, ITV and Channel Four bulletins has never fallen below 65%.

This is particularly true of the two BBC1 bulletins which have shown no significant change in the balance of their bulletins over the 35 year span of the project. While the level of tabloid coverage on the two ITV bulletins has doubled since 1975, there has been no noticeable increase since 1999. The balance remains roughly two thirds broadsheet to one third tabloid.

Channel 4 News has maintained a consistently broadsheet news agenda over the study period, at around 80-90% of total content. It has seen a rise in its tabloid content over the past decade, but this remains below 20% of the total.

Only on Channel Five News did the figure for serious news fall below the 50% mark in 2009, following a substantial shift in its output during the course of this study. This was the only evidence of a deliberate editorial change in priorities.

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and extends the content analysis carried out in an earlier project From Callaghan to Kosovo which examined television news agendas from 1975 to 1999. It was carried out at the University of Westminster and was directed jointly by Prof Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster and Prof Ivor Gaber of the University of Bedfordshire.

Launching the study at the annual conference of the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA), Professor Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster said “Our findings suggest that, so far at least, television news is coping well with the economic pressures and fragmenting audiences which have afflicted the whole television industry.

“As the government prepares its Green Paper for the next Communications Bill, this study is a reminder of how positive regulation and a mixed funding system can underscore television journalism’s continuing contribution to British public life”.

Co-director, Professor Ivor Gaber of the University of Bedfordshire, added: “The findings demonstrate that, at a time when the ethics of newspaper journalists are coming under intense scrutiny, journalists working in television are continuing to produce high quality domestic and foreign news for mass audiences.”

The latest research which covered the period 1999 to 2009, involved 357 evening news bulletins drawn from BBC1, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5 as well as (for the first time) the BBC and Sky’s 24 hour news channels. A total of 5458 stories were individually coded into one of 31 categories, and these were then classified as either ‘broadsheet domestic’, ‘broadsheet foreign’ or ‘tabloid’.

The report concludes:

“Television remains the most important and trusted source of national and international news for the vast majority of people in Britain, and will continue to play a central role in the informational needs of British citizens. We therefore believe it is vital that governments do not attempt to dismantle the protective frameworks that have so far sustained the relative seriousness of mainstream news agendas which make a very significant contribution to public knowledge and to the workings of an informed democracy.“

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Notes to Editors:

  • The main researcher on the project was Dr. Gordon Ramsay of the University of Westminster.
  • The research was funded by a grant of £55,252 from the Leverhulme Trust.
  • The Executive Summary is attached.
  • The project directors are grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for funding this study.

 


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