European countries do not appear to feel threatened by the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, a study of media coverage of Brexit has revealed.

The study, based on coverage in 39 media outlets in France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden, found that most Brexit reporting was neutral and fact-based. Where a position was taken in a news report, it was mostly negative towards Britain’s decision to leave the EU and in particular the way Britain is handling Brexit.

While Europe’s media follow the Brexit debate closely, most journalists displayed a lack of concern about the impact of Brexit upon their own country’s national interests. The study, conducted by Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and PRIME Research between September 2017 and March 2018, concluded that Europe’s media might see their role as ‘bringing facts to the conversation and also keeping separatist tendencies at bay’.

The volume of Brexit news was greatest in the Irish media, followed by Germany, Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Poland and Sweden. Greek, Spanish, Swedish and Irish media in particular expressed strong views against Brexit, while Italian, Polish and French media included higher shares of mixed or pro-Brexit views. Interest in the future of the EU was highest in Sweden and Greece.

Key findings:

  • European media coverage of Brexit was predominantly neutral and fact-based. Most (82%) of the analysed news items took no position in relation to Brexit; only 18% conveyed a clear opinion. 
  • Of those media items that took a position on Brexit, just 8% were pro-Brexit, as opposed to 75% against.
  • When European media items took a position on the UK and the UK government (14%), their view was mostly negative and critical (71%).
  • Most (59%) of the coverage dealt with the challenges the UK itself will be facing, rather than what Brexit means for each respective country (this figure increased when Irish coverage was excluded).
  • With the exception of Irish media, coverage reflected a lack of anxiety about the impact of Brexit on Europe, and the EU’s future. If Irish media are excluded, 69% of the analysed European news items reported on the British situation; fewer than one in five articles discussed implications for the EU.

Co-author Dr Alexandra Borchardt from the Reuters Institute said: ‘On first glance it is surprising that we found so little concern about national perspectives and not much opinion on Brexit. But it makes sense: painting Brexit in the darkest colours possible might be much more effective in discouraging citizens from following the British example than the fiercest commentary ever could.’

Diego Bironzo from PRIME Research added: ‘Not only is Brexit not prompting too much soul-searching about the European project – at least not across the mainstream media we analysed – but often the underlying narrative is that it is posing a challenge first and foremost to the UK, and only to a lesser extent to the continent and its institutions. Moreover, the impact of Brexit on EU citizens’ lives has been given limited space so far in the news. Considering the potentially huge implications, it may be worth it for media organisations to reflect on how to address this.’