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Representing Public Opinion Project

Award Holders: Professor Justin Lewis and Dr Karin Wahl-Jorgensen

Researcher: Dr Sanna Inthorn

Funder: ESRC

Based at: JOMEC

There has, in recent years, been much concern about the poor and generally declining voter turnout in both Britain and the United States. This has been seen as part of a more general decline in civic participation and a decreasing interest in representative politics – especially among young people. At the same time we have seen declining budgets for serious domestic and international news and current affairs amidst widespread accusations of a “dumbing down” in the coverage of public affairs. This research enters the debate by asking whether the news media have played a role in producing a passive citizenry. And, if so, what might be done about it?

The aim of this research project was therefore to examine and evaluate the ways in which public opinion – and the citizen in general - is represented in news coverage. The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK, examined television and print news in both Britain and the United States. The research looked at thousands of news reports and articles in both countries over the course of a year (from 2001 to 2002) in order to provide a detailed picture of how citizens are represented in news media. This includes any reference to public or citizen opinion (whether through polls or more obliquely), the use of “vox pops”, or the appearance of demonstrators or protesters.

The report to the ESRC was completed in 2003, and the research has since been written up in the book Citizens or Consumers? What the media tell us about political participation (Open University Press, 2005).