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When COVID-19 hit sending the UK into a full lockdown, millions of us turned to broadcast news for answers.

But how well did that coverage tell us what we needed to know? Our academics quickly turned their attention to analysing the avalanche of stories.

Professor Stephen Cushion, based at the School of Journalism, Media and Culture, explains: “In March 2020, we were experiencing a massive historic event. And in that moment, many people turned to Aunty, with 20 million viewers tuning into the BBC’s network coverage of the UK Government’s announcements in the first week of the lockdown.

“The role of journalists at this time was essential as people tried to make sense of the latest developments. But while there is no doubt that journalists were working around the clock to feed this demand, the coverage we looked at raised questions about how effectively they were serving all nations of the UK.”

Health is a devolved issue for the UK – meaning decisions made in England by the UK Government are largely independent to what governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland choose to do.

“During the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, most people wouldn’t have known the first lockdown was a four-nation agreement,” Professor Cushion says. “News coverage of the first announcements were all primarily focused on the prime minister and UK government.

“As the weeks rolled on and each nation of the UK moved to their own rules, the lack of understanding of these devolved powers really became apparent.

“Each government took different approaches. The challenge for journalists has been how to explain that in a clear, concise way to ensure nation-specific public health messages are understood by all viewers of network programming that represent the whole of the UK.”

Practical guidance

Professor Cushion and his colleagues were well placed to examine these issues after fifteen years of researching the role broadcasters play in communicating devolution.

Their study of television news during the lockdown highlighted a lack of clarity around the reporting of different COVID-19 restrictions in each nation. Their findings were submitted to the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport ‘Future of Public Service Broadcasting Inquiry’, as well as a Senedd Cymru – Welsh Parliament inquiry in July 2020 into the pandemic’s impact on journalism and local media.

But perhaps more importantly, Professor Cushion’s insights were fed directly into newsrooms – via longstanding links the team has built up with editors during the course of their work. They engaged with the major UK broadcasters during the pandemic at BBC News, ITV News, Channel 4 News, Channel 5 News and Sky News.

To give time-poor newsrooms the best understanding of the issues, short videos were produced for senior broadcast editors, with recommendations on how reporting could be improved.

“Journalists are incredibly busy, and they haven’t got the time and resources to spend hours looking back at what they’ve worked on,” says Professor Cushion. “So, it’s about trying to find creative ways to engage and inform.”

“Having long-standing working relationships with key journalists has allowed our team to respond quickly to their needs.

“Our well-established links with newsrooms meant we were ready to help as soon as the pandemic started – arguably the biggest story to be covered by this current generation of journalists.”

A spotlight on the BBC

Much of Professor Cushion’s work before the pandemic has focused on the BBC – the largest news provider in the UK.

With Professor Justin Lewis, he was commissioned by the BBC Trust in 2015 and 2016 to assess whether BBC News was accurately and impartially reflecting a policy landscape that no longer centres on Westminster.

The research team’s analysis of 5,732 news items challenged the assumption that accuracy of devolved coverage continued to improve and found that in some areas accuracy had actually declined since their last review in 2010.

Professor Cushion says: “The BBC has come a long way in terms of how it represents the nations. Just recently, the 10 o’clock News was broadcast live from each of the nations over the course of a month. It recognises the importance of serving those audiences. But in the day-to-day operations, when they are working to get a story out, there might be instances where the devolved relevance of stories could be reported with greater clarity”.

The researchers also reviewed its use of statistics and their study generated widespread debate across news media, informing the BBC Trust’s 2016 Making Sense of Statistics report.

This report – which references and quotes the University's research 42 times – led to new editorial guidelines.

Describing the BBC’s influence in the media landscape, Professor Cushion says: “Despite the huge changes in how we consume news and the choice available to people, the BBC still commands a large audience.

“It’s seen as the most trusted and accurate and impartial news provider around the world, the cornerstone of public service broadcasting. It has an influence on up-and-coming media organisations and is viewed as a source that can counter a lot of disinformation.

“Of course, given the BBC’s public funding and widespread influence, it is often open to criticism and scrutiny. But if they are held accountable by robust research it allows BBC editors to more objectively reflect on the legitimacy of public criticism, and whether improvements can be made.”

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BBC New Broadcasting House

Building relationships

Professor Cushion came to Cardiff in 2001 to do his Master’s and chose the School of Journalism, Media and Culture due to its “reputation, not just for producing high quality research but also because much of the research produced helped informed media and journalism with practical recommendations about enhancing public understanding of the world”.

He adds: “There’s always a degree of scepticism at first when I meet journalists. It takes time to build up that trust.

“They are trying to make sense of the news day-to-day, making decisions about the next story.

They don’t always have time to look at things over a longer period. I’m able to provide a bird’s eye view and look at the bigger picture. With that sort of perspective, you can see patterns emerge.

“Over time, and by keeping that dialogue open and ongoing, we try and constructively engage with editors by presenting our research findings.”

He adds: “It takes years to cultivate those relationships. It’s about chatting to people off the record, listening to what they need and producing content that helps them in their roles.”

Cardiff University's work to support journalists through this extraordinary period continues apace. “It’s an incredibly challenging time for journalists,” he says. “The challenge for media academics is to continue to engage with editors and journalists, providing robust research that informs and supports their work.”

What’s next?

Professor Cushion continues to engage with senior editors and media regulators about his latest research, including network coverage of devolved issues during the pandemic, and more generally how journalists can effectively counter misinformation and enhance public understanding of politics and public affairs.

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Our research team won the Regional Impact Prize for 2013 for changing the way the BBC reports on political issues post-devolution.

Reflecting devolution: What’s changed?

  • BBC UK journalists flag devolved stories to regional teams, with the BBC Nations asked to highlight any lapses to the UK News Editor
  • Introduction of a permanent ‘Nations news belt’ on the News at Six, guaranteeing a profile for stories from around the UK.
  • The BBC’s 9am news conference now includes the Heads of News from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by video conference.

Testimonials

“Professor Cushion's large-scale content analyses and qualitative case studies have helped illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of news programming in a number of areas and across a number of news organisations. We have found that research of practical use at ITV News.

"Professor Cushion's work on the reporting of politics and policy in a devolved UK has been of particular interest. His published work and private conversations with decision makers has had a positive impact on how ITV News approaches the challenges of accurately reporting devolved policy making to audiences right across the UK. Professor Cushion is an impressive academic but also a very effective influencer. He has demonstrated an ability to be critical of a news organisation's decision making in a manner that leads to constructive engagement rather than defensiveness.

"His work always has compelling statistical analysis behind it and he is always effective at persuading senior news media decision makers to consider his evidence and conclusions. His work has, over a number of years, had a practical real-world impact in improving the approach and decision making in newsrooms.” Michael Jermey, ITV's Director of News and Current Affairs

“The Nations Impartiality Review and follow-up content analysis have been invaluable in tracking and assessing the BBC’s record over the past eight years”. BBC Trust, 2016

“The follow-up research that Stephen Cushion provided for us was invaluable. Programmes are debriefed every day so individual successes and failures are picked up but having an overview helped every understand when we weren’t getting it right and why. His ‘bird’s eye view’ of our output was essentially a shortcut to focus on exactly what more we needed to do to be better.” Cait Fitzsimons, Editor of 5 News

Improved reporting of statistics

  • The ‘Reality Check’ team, which interrogates and provide context on figures being reported by the media, has become a permanent fixture running through all BBC News programming.
  • The BBC’s 2019 editorial guidelines included a new section entitled ‘Reporting Statistics’ informed by Cardiff University's findings and offering constructive advice on handling statistics.
  • Journalists and presenters have been briefed on the research, making them more confident to question statistics and more aware of the need to provide important context.

People

Professor Stephen Cushion

Professor Stephen Cushion

Director of Postgraduate Research

Email
cushionsa@cardiff.ac.uk
Telephone
+44 (0)29 208 74570
Professor Justin Lewis

Professor Justin Lewis

Professor of Communication

Email
lewisj2@cardiff.ac.uk
Telephone
+44 (0)29 208 76341

Publications

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