The Great Awokening of British media
New research throws light on how the media landscape is being transformed
A few years ago, a new study caught my eye. After crunching data on 27 million articles in 47 media outlets in America, a young academic named David Rozado uncovered some truly astonishing trends. He found the number of words to describe prejudice, discrimination, and social justice or “woke” ideology had exploded.
References to words such as “sexist” had rocketed 130%. “Racist” by 249%. “Patriarchy” by 340%. “White supremacy” by more than 2000%. And “transphobia” by more than 2300%. Suddenly, seemingly without warning, American journalists were talking a LOT about different forms of discrimination, as well as highly contested woke ideas such as “unconscious bias”, “white privilege”, and “whiteness.
It became known as “The Great Awokening” — part of a rapid and dramatic change in the beliefs of mainly white, university-educated liberals on race, sex, and gender. Many of the people who work in media, politics, the universities, the institutions, and who regularly consume content produced by the likes of the New York Times or the Washington Post, have simply become far more liberal than everybody else.
They are far more convinced that minority groups are being discriminated against, that America and other Western nations are “institutionally racist”, that their national identity is a source of shame rather than pride, and that immigration and diversity not only make America a better place to live but should be its overriding goal.
In fact, white liberals, research shows, have now moved so far to the left on race and racism that they are often further to the left than minority voters — a truly seismic shift that some compare to the religious upheavals before the American civil war.
It got me thinking.
To what extent might the same trends be taking place in Britain?
Ever since the Brexit referendum, we have spent a considerable amount of time debating why the country feels so much more divided. Yet while we have talked a lot about politicians and populists we have really not said much at all about the media.
So, I reached out to David and asked if he would be interested in collaborating, in using the same technique —something called “computational content analysis” — to analyse how Britain’s media landscape has evolved over the last twenty years.
He said yes.
So, we got to work, crunching data on 16 million articles in a nationally representative sample of the ten most popular media outlets in Britain — including but not limited to The Guardian, the BBC, The Times, Financial Times, and The Daily Mail.
For our report, we wanted to look at the prominence of words that are associated with prejudice and discrimination —such as sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia— and words that are associated with social justice or “woke” ideology —white privilege, whiteness, cultural appropriation, unconscious bias and gender pronouns.
In short, we wanted to explore the extent to which, if at all, the British media is now embracing the same language and vocabulary as media in America.
The results, which I am sharing exclusively with you before anybody else, and which David and I discuss in a podcast for Full Subscribers, are staggering.
Over the last twenty years, between 2000 and 2020, the British media has been utterly transformed. Just like America, our media has become utterly consumed by identity politics, discrimination, and is increasingly embracing social justice ideology.
The Great Awokening, in short, is now just as visible, if not more so, here in Britain.
As you can see below, over the last twenty years media references to words such as racism, racist, white supremacy, and xenophobia increased, on average, by 511%, while words such as sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, and gender discrimination rocketed by 172%. So too have terms such as transphobic and transphobia (up 4143%), Islamophobia and Islamophobic (up 306%), and anti-semitism (up 381%).
These sharp increases are pervasive across media — regardless of whether they are on the left, the right, or the centre (though they are most pronounced in left media, such as The Independent and The Guardian). The one exception, between 2015 and 2020, is references to anti-Semitism, which were more prominent in right-leaning news outlets — most likely in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
Mentions of prejudice have also become more prominent in the BBC, the leading public service outlet. From 2010 to 2020, BBC mentions of terms suggestive of racism increased by 802% while mentions of terms suggestive of sexism increased by 610%. Mentions of homophobia and transphobia increased by 134% and 3,341% respectively while islamophobia and anti-Semitism increased by 585% and 2,431%, respectively.
Similarly, references to words or concepts that are associated with social justice or woke ideology — such as social justice, unconscious bias, white privilege, whiteness, slavery, cultural appropriation, gender pronouns, and hate speech – have also surged.
Contrary to the argument that these are simply being pushed by right-wing culture warriors we actually find the opposite — they are being mentioned across both the right and left media, and are more likely to be cited on the left than the right.
They are reflected in stories about white schoolchildren in Brighton being told by teachers they are not “racially innocent”, the BBC flagging “Non-Binary Day”, or The Guardian complaining about the “whiteness” of the England women’s football squad. The language of social justice is no longer just reflected in politics, universities, or celebrity culture; it is now widespread in the media people are consuming.Put these findings together and it becomes clear that Britain’s media —once known for being much less moralistic and divisive than its American counterpart— is now undergoing the same Great Awokening.
In fact, if we compare America and Britain, as we do below, then we see that despite the two countries having entirely different histories of racism and discrimination, the trends now closely track one another. If anything, remarkably, British media now appears to devote more attention to these issues than their American counterparts.
How might we explain these shifts? And why should we care?
We don’t know (yet) what is going on but I suspect three things are colliding. The first is that we now live in a time when people are much more sensitive to actual or perceived discrimination in Western societies.
Despite rigorous studies pointing to a sharp decline in Britain in prejudice toward immigrants, racial minorities and also sexual minorities, many people, remain deeply — if not increasingly — concerned about lingering forms of prejudice.
This is especially the case among more recent generations of Millennials and Zoomers from Generation Z (i.e. who were born after 1996). While they are significantly more likely than older generations to think “Britain is very racist”, some writers also suggest they have “higher expectations” than older Britons about the need to tackle lingering prejudice — however fringe it may be.
What might seem trivial to a fifty or sixty-year-old who can remember the blatant racism, homophobia, and prejudice of the 1980s or the 1990s might seem incredibly uncomfortable to a young Zoomer who has no memory of what Britain used to be like, who has only known a world of mass immigration, and who is far more likely to have friends and family members from minority backgrounds. The media, therefore, might just be responding to this greater public demand for a stronger “call out culture”.
But I suspect at the same time we are also witnessing a loosening of the criteria used to define what is and what is not racist, homophobia, transphobic, and so on. This “concept creep” — where definitions have been expanded, often to stigmatise those who are not racist, might also be playing a role, driving a growing moral panic about actual or alleged expressions of discrimination in British society.
Recent research, for example, suggests that when a problem, such as blatant racism, becomes much less visible human-beings often expand the definition of that problem in order to “find” a problem even when one no longer exists or has become much less prominent. One example might be deriding people who voted for Brexit as “racists”. Another might be branding gender critical scholars “transphobic”. As concepts have become much looser, our national debate has become more divisive — ironically just as the country is becoming a much more tolerant, accepting, and welcoming place.
This is probably especially the case among far more expressive university-educated liberals who, as American linguist John McWhorter points out, have increasingly come to see their campaigns against racism and other forms of discrimination as a kind of “new religion” — as a central part of who they are and what they are about.
Even if the evidence suggests, as it does, that levels of racism, homophobia, and prejudice have never been lower in British society, the followers of the new religion of anti-racism must continually claim the opposite, that they are on the rise, otherwise their entire creed risks collapse. Recent research also finds that left-leaning media are far more likely to use extremist language when describing their opponents, calling them “far right”, than right-leaning media are to describe their opponents as “far left”.
The end result is a media that is simply socially constructing a very warped picture of the country we live in, which is playing an active role in driving the division.
An alternative and not necessarily inconsistent explanation is that the ideological gravity in British media newsrooms is — much like universities — on the move. After giving a talk at a conference in France, I was recently told by senior journalists at a major British newspaper that some of their junior colleagues — many of whom have come straight out of Oxbridge, from extremely privileged backgrounds — simply do not see themselves as objective journalists who are in the game to pursue truth.
Instead, they complained, their junior colleagues see themselves as deeply ideological “activists” who want to use their positions of influence to preach their politics, spread the word, and “cancel” perceived dissenters or nonconformists who refuse to adhere to the orthodoxy (as symbolised by the George Eaton scandal). In turn, they are making newsrooms far more moralistic, divisive, biased, and uncomfortable — something that we have all been able to witness now that social media has pulled back the curtain.
This has also almost certainly been exacerbated by how media today has also become far more dependent on degree-holding journalists who have usually passed through elite private schools and universities (about 44% of Britain’s columnists went to one of only two universities — I will let you guess which). This is further raising the risk that media newsrooms will be increasingly politicised by Millennial and Zoomer graduates who see themselves first and foremost as activists, and who are also drifting way to the left of many voters on these debates about identity, culture, and belonging.
This is not just my opinion.
Across the West, surveys now show how journalists do lean more to the left than the general population and appear to be moving even further leftwards, especially as more prestigious and influential media is edited by graduates who also come from elite family backgrounds and elite universities. This leaves us all with good questions about the extent to which, if at all, our media really is representative of modern Britain.
By earning their stripes in the most prestigious universities, many journalists have also been swimming in the sea of what sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning call the new “victimhood culture”.
Unlike moral cultures in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, which stressed things such as dignity and honour (“sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”), our new victimhood culture — which is especially strong in the elite institutions — instead incentivizes people to define themselves first and foremost as members of a victimised group, to derive their sense of social esteem, social status, and recognition from this status, and to punish, aggressively, perceived oppressors.
This is quickly dividing the country and the national debate between those who are considered victims and those who are considered oppressors, perhaps changing the guiding logic for media along the way. Moral status and worth is now given to people on the basis of their racial, sexual, or gender identities, and whether or not they happen to belong to one of these fixed identity groups. Having taken these ideas from the Ivory Towers into Fleet Street, this too may be playing a contributory role.
The rise to dominance of a far more elite media class has also been encouraged by the parallel collapse of local and regional media, which once upon a time provided people from outside the elite with a springboard to joining national media. This helped to inject “normal” or “ordinary” views into the debate, as did the fact that many journalists had either not gone to university or had other experiences in life. Today, even those who are held up as evidence of “diversity” in media — such as women or people from minority ethnic backgrounds — have often gone to the same schools and the same universities and so, in terms of their views, are really not that diverse at all.
The increasingly liberal composition of British newsrooms may therefore be shaping what journalists and their editors choose to cover, since people who openly identify on the left are more concerned with prejudice and social justice. In turn, right-leaning media then respond to this by seeking to channel public outrage against the latest Wokery or allegation that person x or institution y is racist. And so the cycle escalates.
This brings us to one final possible explanation, which is the rise of a new and very different “click-bait” business model for media. Unlike the past, journalists are now actively incentivised to promote topics and articles which are far more moralistic in tone, which trigger negative sentiment/emotions, and/or hostility toward perceived out-groups, both of which have been shown to drive media consumption. This is something that disillusioned American journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon writes about in her book, Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy, in which she argues that the rise of an elite media class is now colliding with this new click-bait model.
This too might be contributing to the Great Awokening, though personally I suspect that it is pouring gasoline on a fire that was lit some time ago. Either way, until we get more research we are unable to know which of these explanations is most convincing and I would welcome thoughts — even anonymously — from the many journalists who belong to our community and will be reading this piece in their newsrooms.
But for now, for the very first time, we are at least beginning to get a sense of what is taking place in Britain’s media, how the debate is being transformed, how the trends compare to those in other countries, and where they might be leading us.
While some readers may think these trends are extremely positive, drawing attention to issues that need discussing, personally, I’m much more pessimistic. I suspect that the Great Awokening in the media might soon make way for a Great Reckoning as growing numbers of people ask themselves: what on earth is happening to our media?
This article is cross-posted from Matthew Goodwin’s Substack.
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