Content Analysis of The Mass Media in Social Research

Last Updated on August 17, 2020 by

This post looks at the advantages and disadvantages of using formal (quantitative) content analysis and qualitative textual and thematic analysis of media sources.

(NB For some reason, all of the AQA approved text books only seem to expect you to know about content analysis applied to film/ TV and Print Media, rather than applying this to online media (web sites/ social media/ dating sites) – So I’m only here focusing on analysis of ‘traditional media’ rather than ‘new media’ – DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER – if you want to know why AQA insist on being stuck in dark ages – ask them!)

Mass Media resources are widely used in Social Research. Some Mass Media sources may provide sociologists with information about the social world, but their main interest to Sociologists is as objects of study rather than as sources of information.

Sources produced for entertainment purposes (films/ TV shows, special interest magazines) cannot reasonably be expected to paint a true picture of the social world, but they of interest to sociologists because they can tell us what media producers think people want to see, and it also interesting to see how different groups are represented in fictional TV shows, and the extent to which distortion takes place. When we look at the issue of crime, for example, we find that violent crime is disproportionately featured in crime dramas, whereas 75% of crime is less-serious property crime, and where groups are concerned, sociologists are interested in the extent to which the media perpetuates stereotypes.

News sources may claim to provide accurate information about what is going on in society – but to most sociologists the news is a social construction – it may reflect reality to an extent, but it also reflects the selection biases (what people think are important) and political prejudices of journalists and news editors. NB In the UK Journalists disproportionately come from private school (wealthy middle class backgrounds) – and so there is an inherent right wing bias in media reporting.

Below I distinguish between two basic types of content analysis – formal (quantitative) content analysis and qualitative content analysis

Formal (Quantitative) Content Analysis

Formal Content Analysis is a quantitative approach to analysing mass media content and involves developing a system of classification to analyse the key features of media sources and then simply counting how many times these features occur in a given text.

The simplest form of content analysis is a word or phrase count, which these days can be done on millions of books which have been scanned into Google’s database, more complex forms involve looking at broader categories of content – which types of crime appear in news media for example, or what are the major categories of news (entertainment/ sport/ politics) – or one can analyse pictures to see the representation of men compared to women for example.

The strengths and limitations of formal content analysis

It minimises researcher bias and typically has good reliability because there is less room for the researcher’s interpretations to bias the analysis.

It is quicker to do than qualitative forms of content analysis.

Weaknesses emerge when you start to use broader categories – which can be interpreted differently by different people.

Simply counting the content of a media text tells you nothing about the context in which it takes place, or the broader meaning which the words or pictures convey.

Qualitative Content Analysis: Thematic and Textual Analysis

Thematic Analysis involves trying to understand the intentions which lie behind the production of mass media documents by subjecting a particular area of reportage to detailed investigation.

A good example of this is Soothill and Walby’s (1991) study of newspaper reporting of sex crime. They found that the reporting tended to emphasise the danger of being raped in public places and the pathological nature of individual rapists. It tended to ignore the prevalence of rape by partners and friends of victims and the wider context of patriarchal power within sex crimes.

Textual Analysis involves examining how different words are linked together in order to encourage readers to adopt a particular view of what is being reported.

A classic example of this is the Glasgow University Media Group’s reporting of the miner’s strikes in the 1980s. They found that the miners ‘demanded’ better working conditions, while the managers ‘offered’ certain changes to working conditions.

Textual analysis also involves the use of semiology – which is the analysis of signs and symbols.

The strengths and limitations of qualitative content analysis

Qualitative content analysis allows the researcher to look at the full context in which media reporting takes place, it thus allows for a fuller description of what the media is portraying.

Both thematic and textual analysis lack objectivity and are reliant on the researcher’s own interpretation of the meaning of media texts.

Critics of these forms of analysis have also suggested that those who use these methods tend only to pick samples which reflect their own views, and it would be difficult to do such detailed analysis on a wide range of texts.

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