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Here’s what many journalists missed when covering the Brexit vote

- August 4, 2016
A Brexit flotilla of fishing boats sailed up the River Thames into London on June 16, 2016, with foghorns sounding, in a protest against EU fishing quotas by the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. (NIKLAS HALLE’N/AFP/Getty Images)

The Brexit vote surprised many observers. Most pollsters and financial analysts incorrectly predicted the final outcome. Since the vote, we’ve seen two main media narratives about what happened. On the one hand, some reported that the pro-Brexit vote was driven by factors such as xenophobia, racism, and misinformation about the economic costs of leaving the EU. Others  suggest that the vote reflects anxiety about jobs and the loss of British identity and autonomy that comes with European economic, political, and cultural integration. In addition to emphasizing different information about voters’ decisions, these two narratives usually imply different political positions: one critical, the other positive.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/06/24/britain-wants-a-sweetheart-deal-after-brexit-fat-chance-germany-will-give-it-one/”]Britain wants a sweetheart deal after Brexit. Fat chance Germany will give it one.[/interstitial_link]

Which of these two narratives did the New York Times emphasize? We ask because, despite the fragmented media landscape, the Times is unquestionably one of the most influential newspapers in the U.S.

Here’s how we analyzed the New York Times’ point of view — and what we learned

To answer these questions, we analyzed the content of all articles, editorials, and op-eds published in that newspaper between June 24 (the day after the vote) and July 7, 2016 (the day that the Dallas shootings diverted public attention). We found 161 relevant articles, editorials, opinions, or news items that mentioned “Brexit.” For each we looked at:

  • How articles portrayed the concerns and motivations of voters
  • What sort of information they provided on the consequences of Brexit for the UK, the EU and the world
  • How they portrayed key politicians, such as anti-Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson.

We used this information to sort articles into the following categories:

  • Anti-Brexit: highlighted voters’ xenophobic and racist views; how the U.K., E.U., and the world would suffer from Brexit; or criticized pro-Brexit politicians.
  • Neutral on Brexit: These articles noted that financial markets went back to normal after the initial shock; presented Brexit’s both positive and negative effects on the British economy; or highlighted the views of citizens who voted on both sides of the issue.
  • Pro-Brexit: These articles treated the case for exit as sensible; wrote respectfully that Brexit suggests that the EU or world needs policy reform; or reported ordinary people’s concerns about globalization, without dismissing them as misinformed, racist, and xenophobic.

To minimize personal bias we each independently categorized the articles, and then discussed the few articles where we disagreed (11 out of the 161), until we reached consensus.

We found that 61 percent of the Times coverage carried an “anti-Brexit” perspective; 32 percent offered a “neutral” perspective; and 7 percent had a “pro-Brexit” perspective. Our dataset is available here.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/06/24/heres-why-pollsters-and-pundits-got-brexit-wrong/?tid=a_inl”]Here’s why pollsters and pundits got Brexit wrong[/interstitial_link]

This isn’t necessarily evidence of bias but it does mean that one perspective on Brexit is over-represented, and others relatively-under-represented.

Why is the New York Times against Brexit?

Why might the New York Times (and, we suspect on the basis of casual observation, many other elite media outlets) be so down on Brexit?

Of course we cannot read minds, but perhaps one answer is that many journalists at elite media outlets are from the class that benefits from globalization, reside in metropolitan global cities, and have more exposure to the global cosmopolitan elite.

Another may be that these journalists have loosely assimilated ideas from economic theory that emphasizes the virtues of free trade. We say that because the coverage tends to suggest that EU creates aggregate benefits that are greater than their aggregate costs. This is in line with economic theory related to the so-called Kaldor-Hicks test, under which economists try to assess whether a policy creates a ‘surplus’ of aggregate  benefits that add up to more than the policy’s costs — in other words, whether the community is better off in general.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/25/economics-is-more-a-craft-than-a-science-economists-are-only-beginning-to-figure-that-out/”]Here’s why economists should be more humble, even when they have great ideas[/interstitial_link]

But no one person is an average; citizens experience life as particular individuals in particular circumstances. This economics approach doesn’t ask whether the benefits and costs are unequally distributed, with some reaping most of the benefits while others bear most of the costs. Economists often tend to assume that those who benefit from the policy will or can compensate the losers, without examining whether they do.

Economics and political science examine European integration from different points of view

Measuring overall costs and benefits is an economics question; examining how these costs and benefits are distributed is a political science question.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/06/29/no-brexit-is-not-the-end-of-the-liberal-world-order/”]No, Brexit is not the end of the liberal world order[/interstitial_link]

So let’s look at the fact that while European integration does likely produce (in the economists’ language) some overall surplus, it does so with  winners and losers – some people do much better, while others do much worse.

For example, even if the EU membership increases overall trade, some specific industries will face tougher competition – while others will thrive because they can sell to new markets. Some industries will win, while others will lose. Politically, what matters is that some industries’ workers will lose their jobs. These individuals may have a hard time finding new ones if they either don’t have the right skills or can’t easily move to take new jobs.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/07/07/the-real-reason-the-u-k-voted-for-brexit-economics-not-identity/”]The real reason the U.K. voted for Brexit? Jobs lost to Chinese competition.[/interstitial_link]

Immigration isn’t that different. When a country imports people (just as it imports “stuff”), some people will gain and some people will lose. In some jobs and careers, the immigrants will compete with native-born workers – lowering wages and resulting in complicated politics and ethnic tensions.

In some ways, immigration is even more politically explosive, because it brings not just economic but also cultural changes. Many in the news media are quick to label this as racism or xenophobia without necessarily examining that, underneath these reactions are real losses and gains both economically and in daily life.

How do you manage the tensions between winners and losers

Welfare states have policies that help free trade’s losers. The political scientist John Ruggie called this system for cushioning blows from the international economic system “embedded liberalism,” arguing that the interventionist domestic welfare state made possible today’s liberal trade order.

But these kinds of policies are eroding. Winners aren’t compensating losers. In fact, firms like Apple that have gained enormously from globalization are using complex financial arrangements to escape taxes. Wealthy individuals are doing the same. Economic inequality is increasing dramatically in a “winner-take- all” society. Mainstream media coverage that focuses on racism and xenophobia rather than economic loss and inequality may not be taking these shifts adequately into account.

Larry Summers famously insisted in 2005 that financial markets cannot fail. Yet more recently he noted the Brexit vote should be “a wake-up call for elites everywhere” on the need “to design an approach, approaches to economic policy that hear the anger that’s being expressed in this vote.”

This echoes arguments that economists like Dani Rodrik have been making for decades, as well as the basic assumptions of political science. Political scientist Harold Laswell famously argues that politics is about who gets what, when and how. What did the British average voter get, when and how from EU integration?

Mainstream journalists may wish to keep these questions in mind as other EU countries – Frexit or Nexit, anyone? — start thinking about exiting Europe.

Nives Dolšak is professor in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington.

Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor of political science and the founding director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington.