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David Patrick: Bought and Sold or Hype in Bold? Newspaper Framing of the Scottish Independence Debate

The findings presented in this paper are based on an in-depth analysis of eight newspapers sold in Scotland (The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Sun, The Daily Record, The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, The Scotsman and The Herald). For purposes of analysis, all relevant front-page articles, editorials and comment pieces were included in the study, with other articles and letters being omitted due to restrictions on time. Taking as its starting proposition the ballot paper question of “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, articles were quantified in terms of their apparent position on Scottish independence (i.e. either pro-Union, pro-Independence, or neutral), a choice which reflects the binary nature of the referendum question itself. The findings presented are based on each newspaper printed Monday – Friday, between 18 September 2013 and 31 March 2014, and all qualitative observations are from the author’s own research.

Overall Statistical Findings

When all relevant articles were quantified together, it becomes clear that the upcoming referendum has been a, and surely the, main news story over the past 12 months. Combining front-page articles, editorials and comment pieces gives a total of 1578 articles. When headlines were analysed for evidence of Pro-Union/Pro-Independence framing, it was discovered that whilst 976 (61.8%) headlines showed no obvious bias towards either side, those headlines which did display some form of bias showed that for every headline which framed Scottish independence positively, there were 4.3 articles which were against independence. When the main body of the text was analysed in depth, 763 (48.4%) were neutral in their coverage, whilst those remaining articles showing evidence of clear bias were weighted 3-to-1 in favour of a pro-Union position.

Front Page Coverage

Across the titles selected, some 380 articles were produced which appeared on the front page of their respective outlet. The most prolific in this regard were The Daily Telegraph  (87) and The Herald (82), whilst The Daily Record (13) and The Sun (20) published the fewest articles related to independence on page one. There were major differences between titles in the framing of these front page articles, with, for example, The Daily Express seeing 17 of its 21 front-page headlines being pro-Union (or, put another way, anti-Independence) – a trend echoed by The Daily Telegraph, whose front-page coverage of the independence debate showed 57.4% of articles exhibiting a pro-Union framing of the issue in question. Indeed, when looking at both front-page headlines and their accompanying articles, it is discovered that there is not a single title which framed the debate in Pro-Union terms less often than they framed the debate with a pro-Independence bias.

Expressed in a different manner, only 6% of headlines could be interpreted as pro-Independence, in comparison with 47.1% which framed the debate in favour of a pro-Union position. Whilst it an almost identical proportion (46.8%) of headlines showed no obvious bias towards either side, it remains the case that an individual walking past a newsstand in the period analysed would be presented to a pro-Union headline almost half the time.

Comment and Editorials

When analysing the press for evidence or framing of a given issue or event, editorial and op-ed pieces prove a fruitful source of analysis, not least because they are generally far less subjective than standard news articles are supposed to be. Given the undeniable importance of the upcoming referendum to the future of this country, it should therefore come as no surprise that such comment pieces were both numerous and illustrative of a wide range of opinions.

A total of 386 editorials were produced in the six months analysed, the most prolific in this regard being The Daily Express (69) and The Daily Mail (65), though it is worth noting that neither of these titles contained a single editorial which could be constructed as being pro-Independence (or anti-Union). Coincidentally, the two titles which published the fewest editorials related to independence – The Daily Telegraph (10) and The Times (13) – also did not contain any editorials which were pro-Independence. This is not to say that these specific outlets did not produce a number of editorials which were neutral in their framing of the discussion, but instead demonstrates that – in relation to the debate on Scottish independence – coverage which showed any form of bias invariably showed it to be pro-Union. The Scotsman was the most balanced in this respect, publishing 8 pro-Union editorials to 6 pro-Independence, with 39 (72%) showing no bias towards either position.

Comment (op-ed) articles, unsurprisingly, made up the largest part of this research. In total, 822 such pieces were produced by the eight selected titles across the six months analysed. Taken as a whole, 412 were neutral, with 180 (21.9%) being pro-Independence and 330 (40.1%) being pro-Union. Whilst this gives the overall impression of a degree of balance in the reporting (at least more so in comparison to front-page or editorial coverage), showing the weighting of pro-Union/pro-Independence at roughly 2/1, it should again be remembered that enormous differences exist between competing titles. For example, whilst The Sun printed a similar number of comment articles which demonstrated a pro-Union (24) or pro-independence bias (20) – with exactly 50% (44) being quantified as neutral – numerical distinctions within each title showed more evident variation. The Daily Express, for example, out of a total of 101 comment pieces produced only 3 (2.9%) that could be regarded as pro-Independence, whilst publishing 60 (59.4%) which demonstrated clear bias towards a pro-Union stance. Interestingly, given the bias shown when front pages and editorials were analysed, two titles actually produced more pro-Independence than pro-Union pieces, these being: The Daily Record (33 pro-independence to 19 pro-union) and The Herald (65 to 46).

Named Individual in Headline

Another variable quantified for this research was the use of a person’s name in the headline of an article relating to the debate on Scottish independence, and is one which has produced some notable results. Across the entire project, the headlines of various front-page, editorial and comment pieces contained 362 occasions where an individual was named. Of these 362, a remarkable 207 were in reference to First Minister, Alex Salmond – accounting for 57.2% of all occasions where someone’s name was in the headline of the article. This was more prominent in some titles than in others, with The Herald (the title which did this the least) citing the FM in 33.3% of all headlines that contained a name, compared to 88.9% in The Daily Express and 76% of Daily Telegraph articles which invoked a named person. Put another way, whilst 22.9% (around one-fifth) of the articles analysed contained a name (or names) in the headline, Alex Salmond accounted for 57.2% (almost three-fifths) of the names that were cited. The second most-cited individual in this respect was David Cameron who, being mentioned in 38 titles, accounted for 10.5% of all names used; whilst Nicola Sturgeon (8) and Alistair Darling (7) – respective leaders of the “Yes Scotland” and “Better Together” campaigns – together only managed inclusion in 4.14% of headlines.

Concluding Remarks

The referendum on Scottish independence has been given concentrated and extensive coverage by the Scottish/UK press, unsurprisingly being the main issue in the news in the six months from 18 September 2013 to 31 March 2014. Whilst a fair degree of press focus showed no sign of ideological (constitutional) bias, those articles which did frame the debate in terms favourable to either position showed a clear proportional weighting to the pro-Union side. With the exception of The Sun, this was more apparent in those titles whose main readership is in the rest of the UK, with some showing a level of bias (particularly in editorial and comment pieces) that arguably amounted to a campaign. Another key finding of this research was the observation that Alex Salmond’s name was used in more than 55% of headlines that contained a person’s name. Given his position as First Minister and his integral role within the “Yes” campaign, his inclusion in a number of headlines is hardly surprising; however, a focus on Alex Salmond to the degree highlighted here arguably demonstrates a continuance of the oft-mentioned belief that a vote for independence is a vote for the First Minister, and by extension the SNP. Despite all of this, recent polls suggest a narrowing of the gap between the respective sides in the constitutional debate, and so it is up for discussion as to how much influence this framing of the debate within the press has had on the wider electorate.

David Patrick is a postdoctoral research fellow in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State, South Africa.

This post first appeared on the University of Dundee's Five Million Questions blog.

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