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How right-wing newspapers changed their coverage as Tory campaign imploded

“Sunak bets the house.” “I am fighting for our Nation’s future.” “Drown and out.”

A front page tells the country’s biggest story in just a few words, like the Prime Minister calling a shock early election. An average of 3.8 million newspapers sold each day in May, the month Rishi Sunak announced the snap poll.

i has analysed daily editions of the leading national papers to examine how they wanted to influence their readers in the run up to the election.

The coverage of both main parties has been overwhelmingly negative, with Rishi Sunak’s decision to leave D-Day celebrations early and the release of Labour’s manifesto emerging as key shifts in the coverage, the findings show.

Right-leaning papers initially published positive stories about the Conservatives, before switching to negative articles on Labour around halfway through the campaign. Left-leaning papers consistently ran with negative stories about the Tories before dedicating their front pages to positive pieces about Labour in the final few days.

Very few papers offered balanced front page stories, according to the analysis which covered the period from 23 May to 1 July. i stood out with 12 such front pages compared to The Sun, which had the next highest number of balanced covers at six.

The Times offered the biggest variety of positive and negative stories.

i also assessed whether front page stories posed a risk of bias. As the political campaigns ratcheted up, so did the level of bias among some of the nation’s newspapers, the findings showed.

David Deacon, of Loughborough University, has been monitoring media coverage of elections since the 1992 poll.

“I don’t see much evidence to show news media are very influential in telling people what to think but there is lots of evidence to show they tell them what to think about. It’s the old agenda setting argument… What is the big story tomorrow? What is the big crisis?” he explains.

And while much of the public say they no longer get their news from traditional media, Mr Deacon’s colleague, Dominic Wring, says there’s a misunderstanding at play.

“A lot of people say ‘we get our news from social media’, but actually quite a lot of that content is generated from legacy media brands,” Mr Wring explains, adding that broadcasters and the politicians themselves follow front pages extremely closely and believe the coverage “really matters”.

How we analysed the front pages

i created a database of stories featured on the newspapers’ front pages and whether they could reasonably be considered as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ from the perspective of the main relevant political party by the average person.

Our reporter examined front page stories between 23 May and 1 July. Not every paper featured a political story on their front page throughout the 40-day window. If there was more than one political story featured, i focused on the most prominent article.

i also sought guidance on how to spot potential bias or lack of balance from a range of leading academics.

Sister papers have been combined, for example The Mail on Sunday’s front pages sit alongside that of the Daily Mail.

Plotting the data tells a clear story.

The i led the way with articles that gave a balanced view, with 12 front page stories offering different perspectives within the same piece. The Times ran the most varied range of stories that were either positive or negative for different parties, for example publishing seven front pages that were negative for the Conservative and six that were negative for Labour.

In contrast, right-wing papers, such as the Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, began the election cycle with a flurry of stories that were all almost exclusively positive for the Conservatives.

However, as manifestos launched and early reports emerged regarding the betting scandal that has dogged the Conservatives (and embroiled Labour) since, their front page stories shifted from mostly positive Conservative pieces to mostly negative Labour ones.

Headlines began as: “Kapow! Feisty Rishi floors Starmer over £2k tax rise”, “Fiery Rishi comes out swinging – and lands big blows” and “PM: I will bring back national service” alongside a smiling headshot of Mr Sunak. They later became: “Don’t fall for Labour’s hidden £8.5bn ‘tax trap’”, “Tory wipeout risks one-party socialist state” and “Starmer on the ropes over tax” from the Express, Mail and Telegraph.

This change in tone amplified further in the last few days of the campaign. For example, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday‘s front pages between the 28 June and 1 July were: “Poll that shows it’s not too late to stop Starmer supermajority’”, “Boris: Britain can still swerve Starmergeddon”, “Rishi warning: Starmer will wreck Britian in 100 days” and “Don’t lock Labour in for a generation”.

The three main right-wing papers produced 39 positive Conservative articles and 41 negative Labour stories. There was little balance: they produced only 10 negative front page stories relating to the Tories and two positive Labour ones.

The Sun, while traditionally known as a populist and right-leaning newspaper, produced far fewer positive stories about the Conservatives than their counterparts – but this appears to be in part because the paper ran fewer political stories on the front page.

But when politics did make the cover, The Sun followed a similar pattern – positive stories for the Conservatives before turning to negative stories for Labour.

Headlines around Mr Sunak’s decision to leave the D-Day commemorations early were absent from some front pages, something Suzanne Franks, a Professor of Journalism at City University, noted.

She told i: “The disaster of the D-Day event was absolutely catastrophic but for some reason if you looked at the right-wing press, you wouldn’t really notice it. That was an absolute key moment to the campaign and they didn’t cover it like that at all.”

The Daily Mail did not feature the D-Day fallout on its front page once, instead focusing its reporting on the search for the then-missing Michael Mosley, a former columnist for the paper.

i is the only national newspaper in the UK never to have backed a political party (Photo: i)

The Daily Telegraph ran a headline focused on Mr Sunak’s plans to axe stamp duty for first-time buyers and only afforded a brief mention to the incident in the article’s standfirst, writing: “Tories look to change election dynamic as PM apologies for early D-Day Departure”.

Partisan reporting, as well as misinformation, have contributed to the public’s scepticism about news journalism, with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism finding only 36 per cent of those polled had trust in the news.

Asked whether partisan reporting ever crosses the line into misinformation, Professor Franks says: “I’m sure it does. It falls into that because news is all about selection.”

She believes that while it’s not as clear cut as deliberately publishing incorrect information, it can be problematic.

“You’re taking a view [to not cover a story] and you’re doing that for a particular reason.”

i’s analysis found it was not only right-wing papers that reported some stories more favourably than others.

A significant amount of coverage about the current Government and the Conservatives has been negative.

Out of 101 stories that were negative about the Tories in that time frame, 38 of those came from The Guardian and The Independent, which produces virtual front pages because it only publishes content online.

Both The Guardian, a title well known for leaning left, and The Independent, had 19 front pages that were negative for the Tories. The Independent also dedicated a front page to formally backing the Labour Party.

The Mirror also published a high number of negative stories about the Conservatives (14) and ran 14 front pages that were positive for Labour. The left-wing tabloid ran no front page stories that were positive about the Tories or negative about Labour.

D-Day and the aide betting scandal featured in many of the three papers’ negative headlines for the Tories, including headlines such as: “Sunak’s D-Day Shame: IT’S OVER” from the Mirror and The Guardian’s “Furious Tories turn on Sunak over D-Day snub”.

The Independent’s front page headlines are in a different format and usually feature a sub-head, such as “Just when you thought PM’s election campaign couldn’t get any worse after his humiliating apology for leaving D-Day commemoration early – devastating new poll says Labour is heading for 10 years in power and… Tory Voters want Farage to succeed Sunak as leader”.

A lot of the coverage focused on the two main parties has been negative rather than positive.

Many papers were consistently negative – like the Mirror, The Guardian and The Independent, while others, such as the Express, Telegraph, Mail and The Times have become more negative as the campaign has gone on. That trend changed as polling day drew near, with many left-wing papers switching to stories positive for Labour.

Another way to assess the content of newspaper front pages is to look at whether negative and positive stories pose a risk of bias.

i examined newspaper coverage around key election moments to see how different titles reported them. This included the election being called, the launch of the National Service policy, Farage announcing he would run to be an MP, Farage being hit with a milkshake, a contested ‘£2,000’ tax claim during a debate, Sunak leaving the D-Day event early, manifesto launches, Ed Davey’s rollercoaster stunt and the aide betting scandal.

The papers that had the most front pages that risked being viewed as biased are a mix of left and right wing, with the Financial Times, i, and Metro the only titles not flagged. The Times and The Guardian each only had one front page that could be considered biased. This came despite left-wing paper The Guardian’s higher proportion of negative stories.

There are many issues to consider when looking at balance and bias in the mainstream press, including practical considerations. Many political parties issue embargoed press releases that can only be reported on from 10.30pm in an attempt to dominate the following day’s front pages – something that puts digital-first publishers at a disadvantage.

Similarly, a paper that aligns itself with a political party and is on friendly-terms with special advisers will tend to be given exclusive stories, more than papers who are either critical or known for not being partisan.

Professor Franks suggests readers seek out “both sides” of the argument and warns readers to be wary of “any story which is sort of attacking some politician … anything unduly praising it, particularly when it’s out of step with the others.”

But spotting bias can be subjective. This Guardian front page clearly sources its quote to an individual whose expertise is relevant to the story, and so while being negative it is arguably not ‘biased’ because it is a relevant report that offers balance within the article itself. However, it could be argued the selection of a story critical of a right-wing government by a left-wing paper always carries a bias risk.

Other experts, such as Professor Stephen Cushion, from the Cardiff School of Journalism, argue that bias is unavoidable and that it can be better to have content that is obviously opinionated. However, they also believe, impartiality can bring a higher standard to reporting.

“I think it’s never 100 per cent possible,” he said. “There’s always a degree to which something’s going to be subjective. Some people would argue that because you can never achieve it, we should never go for it. But I’m always of the view that just attempting to do it, it places standards.”

He believes while bias isn’t always bad and can stoke debate, he said, “it is not particularly great for democracy if you’ve got newspapers that are purporting to report news, while actively deceiving you and being misleading in ways that they [newspapers] know are misleading.”

View from the experts: How to spot unbalanced reporting and how the election’s coverage is progressing

David Deacon, Head of Communication and Media at Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture, explains what to look out for.

“The obvious thing would be the use of pejorative or loaded language,” he noted, adding that it is particularly key when that language is an editorialisation rather than a quote. “We’re looking at the news angle, the top lines, the headline, if they start talking about “disaster” or “faux pas” or “misstep” – those sorts of things. It’s common sense. Would you welcome this if you were a press officer for a political party?”

Loughborough University monitors election coverage for a wide range of topics, including the gender balance of those quoted, which issues appear most prominently, as well as the direction and balance of the media coverage itself.

The researchers’ analysis aligns with i’s own findings, including noting that newspaper coverage of the Conservatives has been highly critical and is showing no signs of becoming less so. Negative press coverage for the Tories in week three – including Rishi Sunak’s decision to leave the D-Day commemorations early – exceeded that of the previous weeks, the researchers found.

They also found negative press coverage of Labour has intensified in week three, after a significant reduction in week two.

One of the leading academics on the project, Dominic Wring, added that they have a large team of researchers and they tend to move three papers across the group, in order to help provide a more balanced reference point while analysing more partisan papers.

“They tend to have the i, the Star and the FT (Financial Times). We try to move those around the group of coders because we think those are very good newspapers because they typically trade on their non-partisan standpoint.”

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