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COVID-19 has increased awareness of devolution among UK news providers, report shows

2 March 2022

UK news providers have enhanced their coverage of devolved issues as a consequence of COVID-19, a new report has found.

Professor Stephen Cushion of Cardiff University and Dr Richard Thomas of Swansea University were commissioned by Ofcom to carry out an in-depth independent analysis, across television and online.

The study, a continuation of similar research carried out in 2015 and 2016, looked at television news bulletins broadcast on BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky News, as well as the UK news websites on BBC, ITV and Sky News over a four-week period in summer 2021.

The results show there was more news that was potentially relevant to devolution – approximately 40% of the news agenda - because of a focus on Covid rules made by devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as by the UK Government about England.

In addition to the content analysis, the team carried out interviews with senior news editors, which revealed that newsrooms have become increasingly conscious of the need to report devolved policy differences in network news.

Professor Cushion, based at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture, said: “Our most recent analysis of UK news coverage shows a growing emphasis on matters relating to devolution, largely down to the pandemic and differing rules that were imposed in each nation.

“But, while we identified around 60% of stories relevant to devolution included some form of reference to one or more of the four nations, there were still 40% of items which did not include any signposting about the relevance of devolution, such as stating if a policy related to England only. Furthermore, when a devolved issue was covered, few items compared government decisions across the four nations.

“So, although it is encouraging to see an improvement in how devolved matters are being covered, we still found missed opportunities to communicate the impact of devolution on audiences. It is vital further work is done to ensure viewers across the UK are kept equally informed about important issues.”

Academics examined 1751 news items over a period of four weeks. Television news made up 1,331 news items, while online amounted to 420. Ongoing news reporting about the pandemic was prominent throughout the sample period, including coverage of COVID-19 restrictions across the UK and internationally, and to a lesser extent coverage of the 2020 European football Championship, in particular the run up to, and aftermath of, the games featuring England.

Professor Cushion and colleagues at Cardiff University have spent 15 years researching the role news outlets play in communicating devolution. Find out more here.

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