Credit: Flickr

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union at the end of this month, the Brexit and the Media conference (10 October 2019), organised by The UK in a Changing Europe think tank and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, asked whether the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has broken the news industry and discussed what can be done to rebuild and learn from mistakes in coverage.

Brexit boost to traffic and subscriptions

As the public seeks more content related to Brexit, public TV channel BBC Parliament attracted its largest single-day audience and stories relating to Britain’s departure boosting traffic and subscriptions.

The Financial Times has experienced a 600 per cent boost in digital subscription sales over the weekend of the 2016 referendum and its Brexit-related articles account for 14 per cent of all traffic to its website.

However, David Bond, Brexit editor for the Financial Times, explained that there is a tendency to over-commission stories on Brexit, even during periods when developments have been few and far between.

"Our readers can’t take their eyes off the car crash," Bond said.

"We are constantly having to check whether we are doing too much but the readers keep telling us ‘give us more’."

Brexit fatigue

Outside of the most engaged audiences, there has been a noticeable increase in news avoidance in the UK. Over a third of Britons actively avoid news coverage, with an overwhelming majority trying to block out stories about Brexit, according to the RISJ’s Digital News Report.

As Meera Selva, director of the Journalism Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism explained, the biggest risk of this is not that people will fall for misinformation, but that a significant number of people will get no information and be left with the lack of an ability to make informed choices.

Our readers can’t take their eyes off the car crash.David Bond, Financial Times

"Regional safaris" are not enough to understand the mood of the country

Former political correspondent for Channel 4 Michael Crick, who was in the audience for the event, pointed out the need for newsrooms to better reflect the diversity of views in the country as a whole.

"When I was on Channel 4 News, I could only find two journalists on the programme out of 70 or 80 who had admitted to voting for Brexit. One of those was on the left, and the other had changed their mind," he recalled.

Crick added that since the referendum, news organisations have been playing catch up to try and understand the mood of areas outside of London by sending journalists to regional towns.

Selva agreed and said that the media’s response to Brexit by doing "regional safaris" to the north of England and Wales are not enough to understand the vote.

"It requires a deep-rooted change in the way we look at journalism, the way our newsrooms are structured, the diversity of newsrooms, looking at where staff come from and whether they are truly representative, not just of gender and race but also socio-economic and regional backgrounds," she said.

"This is all stuff we need to look at quite urgently because we are not going to be able to understand the country until we start having people from all parts of the country playing a key role in shaping the message."

'Explainer journalism'

One of the ways that news organisations have tried to report the intricacies of the Brexit negotiations has been the rise in 'explainer journalism', fact-checking claims made by politicians, and openly encouraging members of the public to send in their questions about the process to put to experts.

Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe, highlighted the BBC as a good example of this, particularly with the organisation inviting experts onto their flagship debate programme, Question Time, as well as the wide range of in-depth podcasts from a variety of news organisations discussing Brexit. 

However, Rutter believes that the vote to leave the EU exposed the substandard way issues involving the European Union had been reported, not only since the referendum but in the years and decades before it as well.

Move to non-traditional news sources

News organisations, in particular broadcasters, face the issue of younger audiences continually moving away from traditional news sources. Ofcom’s News Consumption in the UK report found that Facebook is the most used news source among 16-24-year-olds, with Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp also making up the top ten. 

Damian Collins MP, chair of the Digital, culture, media and sport select committee, highlighted that many people will only see glimpses of coverage by organisations, like the BBC, mixed in with content tailored to them by algorithms to match their world view and 'advertorial' content that gives the impression of being trustworthy news.

"Brexit has been an example of the echo chambers at work. There’s been a polarising effect and I think social media plays a role in driving that because it is whipping sentiments very strongly."

The lack of transparency on social media around who is producing the content people are consuming poses the risk of misleading the public into thinking they are reading articles from a mainstream rather than a hyper-partisan source. In response to this threat, Collins suggested that the government should step in and regulate social media content.

"I don’t see why we should draw a distinction between a community radio station with a few thousand listeners but has a license from Ofcom, and a YouTuber with five million subscribers with no responsibilities at all," he said.

In the drive for greater openness about the operators and intentions of certain non-traditional news sites, Collins also praised services like NewsGuard, for offering a way for viewers to independently check the veracity of what they read.

Save the date: our Newsrewired conference takes place on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to for the full agenda and tickets

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