What Brexit Trends Tell Us About How People Read the News
From the time the UK referendum on EU membership was announced in February, several hundred articles per day were published on the topic of Brexit. This number broke into the thousands on June 13, ten days before the polling, and peaked at over 22,000 articles on June 24 when the Brexit results were announced.
So what can the data around Brexit teach us about how people read the news, what topics capture their attention and how they use news sources vs social and search? For this post, Chartbeat took a look at how Brexit has been covered and read, tapping into data from our network of more than 50,000 publishers, and we uncovered a few interesting patterns:
- More coverage does not necessarily mean more reader attention
- The channels by which readers discover stories change during an event’s lifetime
- Traffic driven by social and search reflects people’s differing interests in Brexit stories
Let’s dive into each.
Media Coverage Does Not Always Equal Reader Attention
It’s not surprising that the media gave high priority coverage to this topic , yet public attention wasn’t quickly swayed toward the referendum. After all, 14 months ago the concern over the EU was only the seventh most important issue on voters’ minds according to Ipsos MORI’s survey, noted by Peter Preston in his Guardian column.
The upper panel on the above chart shows how many articles mentioning Brexit were published across the Chartbeat network on a daily basis, while the lower panel shows how many hours people spent reading those articles. The dashed lines mark some important dates related to the Brexit referendum. To many voters, the polling was like a final exam that didn’t gain proper attention until the last minute.
Zooming into media coverage and reader attention, this second chart shows a similar trend on an hourly basis. It illustrates a “pulse” on both the supply and demand side for each day. However, while the media had a strong beat right at the start of the polling on June 23, people’s reading behavior didn’t echo as strongly until much later.
Story Discovery Changes During the Lifetime of a News Event
In terms of total attention, June 23 appears to have been another lukewarm day. However, when we break consumption down by referral type, it actually reveals one of the rare moments when search traffic catches up with social traffic, highlighted in yellow on the following chart. Why is that worth noting? Social traffic is generally driven by passive browsing of news feeds and the like, whereas search traffic is driven by proactive inquiry of specific questions and topics. For that reason, social traffic tends to beat search traffic, as we see on all days other than the polling on June 23 in the following chart.
What’s also notable here is the spiking traffic driven by internal navigation. It indicates that media companies did a great job promoting Brexit stories on their websites and attracting substantial attention from their audience. When the referendum results were announced on June 24, social traffic had a huge jump, which implies people wanted to talk about it for various reasons, such as victorious joys for the Leave camp, surprise and anger for the Remain camp, consequences for overseas jobs, driver’s licences, pensions, and more.
The search spike from the announcement of the referendum results didn’t last: search traffic dwindled on June 24 as information became sufficiently diffused through social media and other communication channels.
Even Regarding the Same Event, Search and Social Readers Consume Fundamentally Different Stories
The last chart further reveals the gap between the supply and demand for particular types of stories about Brexit. The following chart shows how many articles were published in our network around the same story (or group of articles written about the same topic and covered by various news outlets), and how many hours readers spent engaging with each story.
The stories shown above are the top 20 as ranked by the number of articles published about that story (visualized in the upper panel). Story volume is generally driven by major events, such as the start and end of the referendum, and major forces, such as power struggles among political figures and fluctuations of financial markets.
However, in the lower three panels, we see that traffic volume, search volume, and social volume, measured by engaged hours, differ across stories. Via search, people sought explanations relevant to themselves beyond mere facts. The top searched stories are generally long-form explainers and analyses, such as “what happens if UK votes to leave” and “economic consequence if Leave wins.”
The top social stories have a distinctly different flavor. Not necessarily informative, they carry more emotions, e.g., “regrets and anger about results,” surprises, e.g., “Farage breaks Brexit pledges,” and oddities, e.g., “Brits Google what the EU is.” Unsurprisingly, Mr. Trump buckles up in the front seat on the social wagon.
Brexit news won’t be slowing down any time soon. With Boris Johnson announcing last week that he will not be running for prime minister, the debate around Scotland’s future, and the halo effect of the UK’s decision on the upcoming US election, we’ll have plenty of news to analyze and report on in the coming months.