Unexpected Findings from Newspaper Analyses

In order to track the interactions between the celebrity industry and development sector I have been exploring the trends in newspaper articles which mention celebrity and NGOs.  When I began this task I had intended merely to produce a few graphs which tracked the increasing production of these articles over time. What I was not prepared for were some of the trends which emerged.

For example, the rise of celebrity since the 1980s is most clearly visible in the broadsheets. No clear increase is apparent in the tabloids since the mid-1990s when the records I used (Lexus Nexus) begin to report them. There has also been a rather steady decrease in the mention of the top development and humanitarian NGOs generally, despite sustained giving to them over the same period which is visible in John Micklewright’s research.

But the biggest surprise was to learn that, in the last few years, mention of celebrity in association with charities generally, and with leading development and humanitarian NGOs specifically is declining. Even events like Make Poverty History, which produce a clear spike in coverage of articles with in the tabloids, is associated with a decrease in celebrity articles in precisely that period.

When unexpected findings like this come out I like to get them checked by as many people as possible, and as sceptically as possible. To this end Third Sector have reported some of these findings and offered a reaction from celebrity liaison officers in charities. I have also blogged about this work elsewhere.

The original report of this research is available here. Please send me as much critical commentary as you can. I will use the feedback this process produces to write an article for submission to peer-reviewed journals.

A summary of the research follows:

I explore trends in the mention of the terms celebrity and charity by UK newspapers from the late 1980s to the present (mid 1990s for tabloids),  and then, more specifically, the use of celebrity with reference to development and humanitarian NGOs. There is a clear increase in mention of celebrity, but only in the broadsheets. Mention of celebrity is constant, but fluctuating in the tabloids, albeit over a shorter time span. There is a dramatic increase in the mention of the word ‘celeb’, but that represents only a change in terminology, and does not result in more articles. Mention of charity also increases across all papers. Note that mention of the word celebrity, celeb or celebs will underestimate the appearance of public figures in the news, since articles about the most famous people only mention the word celebrity about 25% of the time.

With respect to trends in the use of both words, the most important finding is that there is a steady increase in the mention of celebrity within articles about charity, driven by the broadsheets. This rise appears to halt in the early to mid 2000s and may now be on the wane. There is a marked decline in the mention of celebrity within articles about charity in the tabloids since 2002. Note that celebrity is still mentioned more in articles about charity than in other sorts of articles. Articles about celebrity however only mention charity relatively infrequently, with little increase over time.

With respect to specific development and humanitarian NGOs the proportion of articles mentioning them is generally decreasing. The proportion of articles about development and humanitarian NGOs which also mention celebrity has remained constant in the tabloids, and increased up to 2005 in the broadsheets, before declining. The general patterns conceal important differences in the performance of UNICEF in the tabloids and UNICEF and Oxfam in the broadsheets, whose coverage suggests strong celebrity programmes at work functioning as part of effective media teams.

About Dan Brockington

Researcher at the University of Sheffield
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