A new Ofcom-commissioned study has revealed UK network news providers have enhanced their coverage of devolved topics, largely due to the pandemic.
The report, co-authored by Swansea University's Dr Richard Thomas and Professor Stephen Cushion of Cardiff University, looks at how well UK public service broadcasters reported devolved policy issues on television and online.
An in-depth analysis of content between June and July 2021 revealed that approximately 40% of news items were potentially relevant to devolution – considerably more than revealed within studies that looked at the issue in 2015 and 2016.
This substantial rise can be linked to the focus on Covid-19 rules made by Governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the UK Government regarding England.
Further detailed examination showed 60% of these items included some form of reference to one or more of the four nations; however, when covering a devolved issue, the opportunity to compare and explain each Government's decisions was often missed.
As part of the report, senior editors from news outlets, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky News, were interviewed to better understand their editorial choices.
The interviews revealed:
- Newsrooms have become increasingly conscious of reporting devolved policy differences.
- Reporting of the UK's four nations is far more challenging since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, as Governments across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England have taken different approaches to handle the health crisis.
- All editors agree online news provided more space and time than television reporting to signpost to devolved powers.
By featuring more journalists on location beyond England, the BBC, for example, utilised its more extensive network of reporters across the nations compared to other news broadcasters.
BBC news reporting, particularly online, also provided far more clarity about the relevance of devolved issues than other network news television bulletins and online sites.
Dr Richard Thomas, Head of the Department of Media and Communications at Swansea University, said: "Our collaborative project has enabled some real insight into the ways that the main broadcasters reported how the devolved nations were dealing with the pandemic.
"What's particularly interesting is how the whole concept of devolution has perhaps become more widely understood as a consequence of Covid-19. For instance, many people living in Wales would now know that when it comes to Covid-19 guidelines, First Minister Mark Drakeford's statements have more relevance than Boris Johnson's.
"While it's clear that existing levels of signposting in news reports could be improved, there is a clear will on behalf of the broadcasters to do so, and that's a real positive.
"On a more personal level, it's a source of great pride that two of the great research team working on the project, Sophie Timmermann and Marta Viganò, are Swansea graduates. Alongside their Cardiff colleagues, they did a great job collecting and analysing the data."