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Less than a week to go and still ‘nothing’ remains top EU referendum news story

Every week since the end of February, Populus has asked around 2,000 members of the British public to tell us which news stories, issues or events they have noticed in relation to the EU referendum.

A month ago we reported that despite the big day drawing ever closer, the public were yet to take notice of the campaigns or, indeed, any of the political mud-slinging that invariably accompanies national decisions of this magnitude.

Having now carried out the last of our EU TTMN polls, we can officially confirm that the run-away most noticed referendum news story is…’nothing’.

The chart below plots the percentages of people noticing a variety of news stories each week. What we can see is the majority of stories clustered together towards the lower end of the graph, most of which failed to be mentioned by more than 20% of the population. Looking at this it’s fair to say that stories about immigration, the economy and the likes of Carney, Gove and Farage are simply noise that has failed to pierce the nation’s consciousness.

Most noticed stories

Equally, stories on the antics of Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon, John Major and Tony Blair barely featured in our findings.

Only Boris Johnson’s announcement that he would be supporting Brexit and Barack Obama’s intervention back in April caught the public’s attention enough to overtake ‘nothing’ as the most noticed news story.

What even is ‘Brexit’?

Tech giant Google has also been tracking the UK’s interests when it comes to the EU referendum.

According to its data, these are the top questions on the EU referendum that the UK public have typed into the search engine[1].

  1. What is ‘Brexit’?

  2. How do I vote in the EU referendum?

  3. When is the EU referendum?

  4. Who can vote in the EU referendum?

  5. Will Brexit happen?

Furthermore, the top UK question on the European Union is ‘Is Russia in the EU?’, a topic that isn’t even up for debate.

Google’s findings certainly seem to back up our view that the UK population just isn’t that tuned in. If they were, surely they’d know the answer to such basic questions as ‘What is Brexit?’ and indeed “When is the EU referendum?”.

It is plausible, however, that the reason for this is a misjudgement on the part of politicians, journalists and speechwriters in their use of language throughout the campaigns. Perhaps those controlling the discourse surrounding big decisions such as this need to be more aware of the limits of public knowledge in order to draft communications that are accessible to the entire electorate and effectively convey key information without the use of jargon and throwaway buzzwords.

Interest in TV debates proves underwhelming

In the week ending 10 June the TV debates were noticed by 24% of the public making them the top story, but still this figure was overshadowed by the 45% who noticed nothing, even with less than a fortnight to go.

According to ITV’s ratings just 3 million viewers, a 16% share of Thursday’s 8pm-10pm audience, sat down to watch Nicola Sturgeon take on Boris Johnson, and even the Prime Minister could only attract 4 million viewers for his debate against Nigel Farage 2 days prior to this.

Last year more than 13 million tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off. Can it be that the public deem this a matter of greater national importance?

Or, does it call into question the effectiveness of the TV debates as a means of engaging the public? Clearly the public have better things to do than watch their political leaders launch personal at one another.

It should be noted that in our TTMN poll of the wider news, the EU referendum has frequently come out on top. However, with so few people able to recall any specific stories, only time will tell if the public has paid enough attention to have been swayed by either of the campaigns or media coverage.

[1] https://www.google.co.uk/trends/story/GB_cu_EoBj9FIBAAAj9M_en

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