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Does TV turn people off politics?


Television news programmes may be contributing to current political apathy, according to a new report funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. An in-depth study of more than 5600 TV news reports in both Britain and the US between September 2001 and February 2002 reveals that the news media may be encouraging a disengaged citizenry by representing the public as generally passive and apolitical.

"This study was prompted by growing concern about the poor and declining voter turnout in both Britain and the United States," explains Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University. "Although we have recently seen people taking part in huge protests – whether for the countryside or against the war – this engagement doesn’t seem to connect to an interest in representative politics."

The report asks what model of citizenship the news media provides. Crucially, do the news media encourage or discourage citizens to engage with politics and public life?"

Researchers analysed news reports for any reference to public opinion, whether through polls, ’vox pops’, demonstrations, or simply off the cuff remarks made about what people think about the world. Some of the findings, suggests Professor Lewis, are surprising.

  • Many assume that the main form of public representation in the media is the opinion poll. In fact, less than 2 per cent of references to public opinion on British television involve polls or surveys of any kind.
  • The most common references to public opinion (44 per cent) are inferences – claims made (generally by reporters) without any supporting evidence.
  • Similarly ’vox pops’, the second most common category (39 per cent) often appear to provide an impression about public opinion, but are rarely based on survey data.
  • Demonstrations, or other examples of citizen activism are rarely used as a source of public opinion (less than 3 per cent).
  • Public opinion in Europe is almost completely ignored, especially in British media.

"Polls, for all their flaws, are the most systematic form of evidence we have about what people think about the world – yet they’re used surprisingly rarely in television news," Professor Lewis points out. "While television often refers to public opinion, these results suggest that we rarely hear any evidence for the claims being made."

Similarly striking is the extent to which citizens are represented as non-ideological. In the sample, 95 per cent of references in Britain (90 per cent in the US) expressed no clear political leaning at all – even though the most common subjects of references to public opinion such as health, crime and terrorism, are all matters of political debate. Overall, only around 5 per cent of references to public opinion on British news involve citizens making suggestions about what should be done in the world.

The report argues this risks conveying an impression of a citizenry either unable or unwilling to put forward a political view. Instead, the most common type of citizen representation is a member of the public talking about their experiences, impressions or fears. According to Lewis, "On television, citizens may raise problems, but it’s left to politicians or experts to offer solutions."

The research team acknowledge that many in the news media and politics are concerned about public apathy in politics and that there is now a willingness among the media to broadcast citizens playing a more active role in political debate. "This might involve some radical departures from time-honoured conventions, but it might also be a prerequisite for engaging a population increasingly disenchanted with political parties," Professor Lewis concludes.

For further information:
Contact Professor Justin Lewis on 02920 876341 or 02920 651905, e-mail:
Or Lesley Lilley or Anna Hinds at ESRC, on 01793 413119/413122

Anna Hinds | EurekAlert!
Further information:

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