Public news apathy fed by 'rarely reliable' vox pops

News: is the public “passive and apolitical”?

Television news programmes may be contributing to current political apathy, according to a new study.

An in-depth study of more than 5,600 television news reports in both Britain and the US between September 2001 and February 2002 revealed that the news could be “encouraging a disengaged citizenry, by representing the public as generally passive and apolitical”.

The research, conducted by the University of Cardiff and backed by the Economic and Social Research Council, was led by Justin Lewis, professor of communication at the university’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. He said the study stemmed from “a growing concern about the poor and declining voter turnout in both Britain and the United States”.

“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.” According to Lewis, the research threw up some “surprising” conclusions, one of which was the extent to which citizens are represented as non-ideological on the news.

“Ninety five per cent of references in Britain 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,” the report said.

It found that opinion polls or surveys, often perceived by viewers as the main form in which media represents political views, were used in less than 2 per cent of references to public opinion on British television.

Instead, news producers tended to use “vox pops”, which the study said were rarely based on reliable survey data, to gauge the public’s views.

In contrast to the token use of polls or surveys, vox pops accounted for 39 per cent of programming.

“Polls are the most systematic form of evidence we have about what people think about the world – yet they are used surprisingly rarely in television news,” said Lewis. “While television often refers to public opinion, these results suggest that we rarely hear any evidence for the claims being made.”

The report added that the most common references to public opinion were “inferences – claims made (generally by reporters) without any supporting evidence”. These accounted for 44 per cent of all references made to the public’s political outlook.

Demonstrations, or other examples of activism, are rarely used as a source of public opinion, accounting for less than 3 per cent of references on television news. Also, British media almost completely ignores public opinion in Europe.

By Wale Azeez

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