In the wake of the UK General election result, the assumption that British newspapers have a significant influence over their reader’s voting behaviours is being challenged.
The results of a recent YouGov poll found that a majority (52%) of Sun readers didn’t vote last week and just 59% of those who did, voted the way the paper suggested. Perhaps even more surprising is that one in six readers of the Daily Mail voted for Labour.
Given this, perhaps it is also time to question similar assumptions about the power of the press over public attitudes towards aid.
The UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), for example, was recently criticised by a group for MPs for basing its decisions on media coverage rather than evidence.
“We note that programmes occasionally appear to be closed based on negative media headlines, despite performing well in DfID’s own assessments and without a proper review of the programmes being undertaken,” they said.
In January this year, government plans to extend funding to a campaign for girls’ empowerment in Ethiopia called Yegna were dropped after critical coverage of project in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. The Daily Mail described it as a “blood boiling” waste of taxpayers’ money. Yegna addresses issues such as early forced marriage, violence and barriers to education.
The MPs conclusions were informed, in part, by evidence from Jonathan Fisher at the University of Birmingham, who claims that, “DfID officials interpret public support for or opposition to key decisions through media headlines”
Are DfID and others right to be concerned about critical newspaper campaigns? Do they really drive – or even accurately reflect – public opinion? The results of an ongoing survey of public attitudes towards aid in the UK, France, Germany and the US, suggest not. The Aid Attitude Tracker (AAT), funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, surveys 8,000 people in each country, every six months since 2013.
The results do show that the Daily Mail is the second most important newspaper in the UK as a source of information about international development – behind only the Guardian. Daily Mail readers are also more likely than non-Mail readers to think that aid is ineffective, that it “ends up in the pockets of corrupt politicians in the developing world” and that levels of aid spending should decrease.
However, this does not prove the influence of the Daily Mail over attitudes towards aid. It could simply be that individuals who are more sceptical towards aid spending are more likely to read the Daily Mail. Indeed, a number of other results suggest that the media in general, and newspapers in particular, may not be as important in shaping public opinion, at least in the short term, as is often assumed.
When asked what source of information had the greatest influence over what they thought and felt about global poverty, only 8% of respondents mentioned newspapers or news websites.
Moreover, if public opinion were significantly affected by negative media campaigns, then we might expect support for aid to decline or at least fluctuate over time. It did not. The results showed no significant change in UK respondents’ perceptions of the effectiveness or wastefulness of government aid spending between 2013 and 2016. Even during the Daily Mail’s campaign in 2014 to encourage spending of the foreign aid budget on flood victims in the UK, there was no discernible drop in support for aid from any demographic, including Mail readers.
In fact, the percentage of UK respondents who claimed to be supportive of UK aid actually increased slightly over time, as the graph below shows (although the number of people taking action on global poverty has declined).
In addition, the association between newspaper readership and levels of support for oversees aid was positive, rather than negative. Those who regularly used newspapers and news websites as a source of information about news and current affairs were more likely to be supportive of aid.
Finally, the results show most people are simply not interested in news about aid. In the UK, only around a quarter (26%) of respondents claimed to regularly follow news about international development. This was significantly lower than for any other international issue – including human rights (37%), climate change (37%) and foreign affairs coverage in general (55%). Indeed, despite its relative popularity, only 16% of UK respondents to YouGov’s online panel claimed to use the Daily Mail or Mail Online as a source of news about international development.
The point here is not to suggest that news coverage doesn’t matter. It does. And misleading headlines should be challenged, particularly because of the potential longer-term effects they might have on public attitudes, which are much harder to capture in surveys. It is also important to highlight the crucial role that effective media scrutiny can play. MPs rightly acknowledged that the Mail on Sunday’s coverage has helped to uncover serious issues in UK aid spending.
Rather, the key conclusion is that newspaper headlines are not an accurate reflection of what people think about aid. Nor do they appear have an immediate, direct and mass effect on public perceptions. If government officials do interpret public attitudes towards aid through media headlines, they are wrong to do so.