Does Biased Media Coverage Affect Public Opinion? Liverpool’s Boycott of a Eurosceptic Tabloid Suggests That It Can

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Frank Wyer, covers the new article by Florian Foos, London School of Economics and Political Science and Daniel Bischof,
Aarhus University, Denmark and University of Zurich, “Tabloid Media Campaigns and Public Opinion: Quasi-Experimental Evidence on Euroscepticism in England

During the 1990s and 2000s, a popular British tabloid The Sun waged an intense editorial campaign against the European Union (EU). Not only did The Sun offer its readers consistently negative or “Eurosceptic” coverage of the EU, but it also spread viral myths about the organization, one of which asserted that the EU was even out to ban “bendy bananas.” Did The Sun succeed in propagating negative perceptions of the EU among the British public? In a new article in American Political Science Review, Florian Foos and Daniel Bischof exploit a historical event that resulted in a local boycott of The Sun to identify the newspaper’s effects on public opinion, finding that inhabitants of boycotting localities had significantly more favorable views of the EU and were less likely to support leaving the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Their innovative study provides powerful evidence for the idea that the media plays an independent role in shaping public opinion.

It might seem intuitive that partisan or biased media coverage would influence audiences’ beliefs or opinions. Critics of media outlets like Fox News in the United States, or tabloids like The Sun in the UK often make this argument. Yet testing this proposition empirically is challenging. After all, viewers and readers choose which television shows to watch or newspapers to buy, and they may just consume the media that best matches their preexisting opinions. This makes it difficult for researchers to determine whether attitudes are the cause or consequence of biased media consumption. In their UK-based study, Foos and Bischof face this exact challenge: did The Sun’s EU coverage generate anti-EU attitudes among readers, or were anti-EU readers simply more likely to choose The Sun than other newspapers?

To address this challenge, the authors exploit a historical event that caused a large and persistent decrease in readership of The Sun in Liverpool and the surrounding Merseyside region in the UK. In 1989, a human crush at a soccer stadium resulted in the tragic death of 97 fans of Liverpool’s soccer team. The Sun slandered the Liverpool fans in its coverage of the tragedy, provoking a sustained boycott of the paper among both readers and newspaper stands across Merseyside. The authors argue that this incident, while entirely unrelated to the EU or Euroscepticism, nevertheless caused a dramatic decrease in the exposure of Merseyside residents to anti-EU media coverage in the ensuing years.

“The study’s innovative design addresses a key problem that often plagues empirical research on this topic by allowing the authors to isolate the consequences of biased media consumption from its causes.” How did this reduction in anti-EU media affect public opinion? Using survey data, the authors estimate an 11 percentage-point decrease in Euroscepticism in Merseyside relative to other areas of Northern England. A similar analysis of votes in the 2016 Brexit referendum found 8-9 percentage point decrease in support for leaving the EU in Merseyside counting areas compared to control areas (for reference, “Leave” beat “Remain” by 3.8 percentage points nationwide). The authors further verify these results by showing that the relative decrease in Euroscepticism in Merseyside was most pronounced among unskilled and semi-skilled workers, the core audience of newspapers like The Sun, and among residents who grew up during the boycott of The Sun.

Taken together, these results provide persuasive evidence that biased media coverage can have real and significant effects on public opinion. The study’s innovative design addresses a key problem that often plagues empirical research on this topic by allowing the authors to isolate the consequences of biased media consumption from its causes. The dramatic results the study identifies from a single media outlet suggest that concerns about the effects of biased news coverage around the world are not unwarranted.