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The Internet as an Object of Content Analysis

Websites, social media posts and similar virtual documents are all forms of secondary data, and thus amenable to both quantitative and qualitative content analysis.

 

global internet use stats.png
The sheer number of internet users creating online documents makes researching them a challenge

 

There are, however, many difficulties in using web sites as sources of content analysis. Following Scott’s (1990) four criteria of assessing the quality of documents, we need consider why a web site is constructed in the first place, whether it is there for commercial purposes, and whether it has a political motive.

In addition, we also need to consider the following potential problems of researching web sites:

  • Finding websites will probably require a search engine, and search engines only ever provide a selection of available web sites on a topic, and the sample they provide will be biased according to algorithm the engine uses to find its websites. It follows that use of more than one search engine is advisable.
  • Related to the above point, a search is only as good as the key words the researcher inputs into the search engines, and it could be time consuming to try out all possible words and combinations.
  • New web sites are continually appearing while old ones disappear. This means that by the time research is published, they may be based on web sites which no longer exist and not be applicable to the new ones which have emerged.
  • Similar to the above point, existing web sites are continually being updated.
  • The analysis of web sites is a new field which is very much in flux. New approaches are being developed at a rapid rate. Some draw on traditional ways of interpreting documents such as discourse analysis and qualitative content analysis, others have been developed specifically in relation to the Web, such as the examination of hyperlinks between websites and their significance.

Most researchers who use documents accept the fact that it can be difficult to determine the population from which they are sampling, and when researching documents online, the speed of development and change of the Web accentuate this problem. The experience of researching documents online can be like trying to hit a moving target that not only moves, but is in a constant state of metamorphosis.

Three examples of content analysis of documents online

Boepple and Thompson (2014) conducted quantitative analysis of 21 ‘healthy living blogs’. Their sampling frame was only blogs which had received an award, and from those, they selected the blogs with the largest number of page views.

They found that content emphasised appearance and disordered messages about food/ nutrition,with five bloggers using very negative language about being fat or overweight and four invoking admiration for being thin. They concluded that these blogs spread messages that are ‘potentially problematic’ for anyone changing their behaviour on the basis of advice contained in them.

Davis et al (2015) conducted an analysis of postings that followed a blog post concerning a cyberbullying suicide y a 15 year old named Amanda Todd. There were 1094 comments of which 482 contained stories about being bullied, 12% about cyberbullying, 75% about traditional bullying, the rest a mixture of both.

The research found that the main reason victims of bullying are targeted is because they do not conform in one way or another to society’s mainstream norms and values, with the most common specific reason for bullying being a victim’s physical appearance.

Humphries et al (2014) conducted content analysis on the kinds of personal information disclosed on Twitter. The authors collected an initial sample of users and they searched friends of this initial sample. In total the collected 101, ,069 tweets and took a random sample of 2100 tweets from this.

One of their findings was that Twitter users not only share information about themselves, they frequently share information about others too.

Concluding Thoughts 

Researching documents online may be challenging, but it is difficult to see how sociologists can avoid it as more and more of our lives are lived out online, so researching documents such as web sites, and especially blogs and social media postings is, I think, very much set to become a growth area in social research.

 

 

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Gap Year Blogs – A Thematic Analysis

Snee (2013) was interested in how representations of cultural difference were portrayed in ‘gap year’ narratives. She sought out blogs containing the phrase ‘gap year’ using two blog search engines (Google blog search and Technorati) and also searched some websites which seems to be associated with the blogs she uncovered through this search. She selected those whose author was from the UK and whose gap year was taken overseas, was sandwiched between school and university, and included more than a couple of posts. Initially she uncovered 700 blogs but these were narrowed down to 39 because she sought a balance in terms of both gender and the type of gap year.

These blogs blogs form her data, along with interviews with nine of the bloggers. The interviews indicated that bloggers wrote up their experiences in this formant because it was the most convenient way to provide a ‘record of their travels’ suggesting that blogs are very much a modern form of diary. Her inductive analysis of the blogs yielded four themes:

  1. The bloggers dew on common representations of the exotic qualities of the places they visited in order to portray their destinations. For example: ‘we sailed to White Haven Beach which is just like on the postcards; white sands and light blue sea’.
  2. Bloggers often convey a sense of feeling out of place in these exotic locations, expressed through their awareness of physical or cultural differences. For example, one blogger realised that by standing with her arms folded in Uganda she was being rude.
  3. Through their interaction with local people and their physical environment, gap year bloggers often displayed a sensitivity to local customs and to the complexity of the locations in which they were travelling. For example, one blogger expressed his unease at other tourists clambering all over Ayres Rock (Uluru) in Australis
  4. There is often a narrative of the danger, risk and someone’s irritations associated with the local environments – there are complaints abut the quality of driving in Delhi, lack of concern for safety in Ecuador and frightening air quality of Rio de Janeiro. These involve comparisons with the U.K.

Snee notes that these four themes in gap year blogs reveal a tension: on the one hand there is a desire to learn about and understand the local, reflect on global issues and experience what places are really life… on the other hand, established discourses are reproduced of an ‘other’ that is romanticised or criticized.

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Evidence of Right Wing Media Bias

Is there a right-wing bias in the British media? Here I explore some of the sociological evidence which suggests that there is a right wing bias in the media and point out some of the limitations of this evidence.

In a recent (May 2017) interview with the Radio Times, David Dimbleby pointed out that Jeremy Corbyn has been treated unfairly by the U.K. Media, but that didn’t appear to surprise him because he believes we have a ‘right wing’ press.

But is David Dimbleby right about the media being ‘to the right’? In this post I explore some of the available evidence to see how far it supports this view.

NB – I am aware that how you answer this question depends on how you define left and right, and that not only are there different dimensions to left and right (YES I have come across the political compass!), but that the meanings of left and right shift over time, so they are relative concepts.

Having said that, we have to start somewhere – so I broadly define ‘right wing’ as neoliberal – pro-privatisation of public services, deregulation and lowering taxation, an emphasis on economic growth rather than social progress, and a current commitment to austerity. I also include within my broad definition of ‘right wing’ anti-immigration sentiments (sorry, I know it’s vague!). Left wing I define as against further privatisation of public services (more to the left is in favour of re-nationalisation), an enhanced role of the state in regulating especially big business, and a belief in higher levels of taxation of especially the wealthy (those earning over £50K a year for example). Also included within a broadly leftist perspective is a commitment to end austerity and a commitment to internationalism – the free movement of people across boarders and so a much more relaxed attitude to migration than the right.

NB – That was all just off the top of my head, I’ll write something more articulate when I get around to it!

Something I find very interesting is that the first piece of evidence below gets around the whole tricky issue of operationalizing right and left wing… just by asking people ‘do you think the media is right or left wing’? This raises all sorts of sociological questions about objectivity and subjectivity and categories. From a teaching perspective I’m currently thinking this ‘measuring political attitudes’ topic could be the perfect one for explaining the difference between positivist and phenomenological approaches to social research.

Anyway – on to the point of this post…

Four pieces of evidence of right wing bias in the media

The general public certainly seem to feel that British newspapers have a right-wing bias, as the results of this March 2017 YouGov poll demonstrate:

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The two most popular newspapers in Britain are the Daily Mail and the Sun (a joint readership of 10 million) and these are two of the most ‘right wing’ according to public opinion, which again suggests that according to people’s ‘gut feelings’ we do, indeed have a right wing press.

However, there are limitations with this evidence – it is only based on the subjective feelings of people – just because people feel a paper has a left or right wing bias, doesn’t mean that the paper actually has a left or right bias.

From a positivist point of view, in order to answer the question of whether there actually IS a right wing bias in the press, what we need is some more objective data, and in order to get that we need to find some content analysis of media sources which pin down, or operationalise more precisely what they actually mean by left and right wing views…..the rest of the sources below do just this, by focusing on specific aspects of right, or left wing thought.

A 2016 London School of Economic Report: Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press found that Jeremy Corbyn was represented unfairly in the media before he was elected party leader.

The research cites the following examples of unfair representation:

  • through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits
  • being denied his own voice in the reporting
  • sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him
  • He systematically  treated  with  scorn  and  ridicule  in  both  the broadsheet  and  tabloid  press  in  a way  that  no  other  political  leader  is  or  has
  • The press repeatedly  associated  Corbyn with  terrorism  and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK.

Given that Jeremy Corbyn’s views are much more left wing than most labour MPs, evidenced by the fact that JC is one of the most outspoken critics of right wing neoliberal austerity policies, his vilification in the mainstream media could suggest a right wing bias: the very fact that he is generally talked about critically, rather than being allowed to express his views without distortion suggests an attempt to prevent left-wing political view points coming to public attention, and if they do come to public attention, an attempt to dismiss them as silly.

HOWEVER, a fundamental limitation with this piece of research evidence is its lack of representativeness of coverage of people with left wing views – it only focuses on Jeremy Corbyn – it might just be the case that during 2015 there were other people with left wing views who were being taken more seriously, so the vilification of Corbyn might have nothing to do with his left-wing views, it might be purely personal. This is unlikely, I know, but we don’t know this from the above research.

Neoliberalism, Austerity and the Mainstream Media – a 2015 report by the university of Sheffield looked at how over 1000 news articles about the impact of social policies. The research specifically looked at whether news articles had a neoliberal framework – i.e. did they discuss things like austerity purely in terms of economics (‘squeezing public finances’) or did they widen their discussion to talk about the broader human impact (family breakdowns, illness and death for example)

If an article limited itself to how policies would impact people’s finances, or the wider economy, then it was classified as a ‘neoliberal frame’, if it focused on the impacts on family, education, health or other non-economic impacts on individuals, it was coded as a non-neoliberal frame.

To my mind this is much stronger evidence of a ‘right wing’ bias in the media than the previous two pieces – at least if we accept the operationalization of ‘neoliberal framing’ as indicating a ‘right wing’ point of view.

However, a problem with the above research is that the category ‘neoliberal frame’ is quite broad, and precisely what statements come within the category is open to differential interpretation by researchers.

Also – exploring neoliberal framing is a very general level of content analysis – for more valid evidence of a ‘right wing’ bias you would have to look at how the media treated specific neoliberal policies such as privatisation, deregulation, lowering taxation, or the issue of immigration…

A recent 2016 Report on the United Kingdom by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance noted that:

“Hate speech in some traditional media, particularly tabloid newspapers, continues to be a problem, with biased or ill-founded information disseminated about vulnerable groups, which may contribute to perpetuating stereotypes.

It singled out Katie Hopkins’ article in The Sun, published in April 2015, as an example of how bad things can get – the article was entitled “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants”, in which Katie Hopkins likened migrants to “cockroaches”, “feral humans” and that gunboats should be dispatched to prevent further arrivals.

While the above does suggest a clear right wing bias in The Sun, case studies are not representative, so we’d need something more quantitative to see how widespread such a tone of reporting is.

So that’s four pieces of evidence, based on systematic research of several sources (NB the last one did look at more than one article!) which suggest a right wing bias in media content, however, they all have there limitations, so I’ll leave it to you to decide whether there’s sufficient evidence here to conclude that we really do have a right-wing media here in the U.K.

Further pieces of evidence of right wing media bias

Jeremy Corbyn being accused of making a U-turn on a promise to abolish student debt, when he didn’t actually promise to abolish student debt.

According to Channel 4’s Fact Check

In the run-up to the general election, Jeremy Corbyn made a comment about student debt. Speaking to the NME about the issue, he said: “I will deal with it.”

At the time, this was not widely picked up on by the national media. But – where it was reported – most papers accurately reflected that Corbyn had not explicitly promised to write off all debts. For instance, the Daily Mail said the Labour leader had pledged to “reduce or even write off” student debt.

But then (on Sunday (23rd July 2017) Corbyn was quizzed about this remark during a BBC interview.

Presenter Andrew Marr put it to him: “If you are a young voter and you heard those words: ‘I will deal with it’, you might have thought Jeremy Corbyn is going to relieve me of my debt.”

Corbyn was forced to defend his position, saying: “We never said we would completely abolish it.”

For some, this constituted a U-turn.

The Mail said: “Labour has backtracked on its promise to write off £100 billion of student debt.” The Telegraph said the party had “retracted its pledge to abolish student debt”. And Alan Sugar called Jeremy Corbyn a “cheat” and said he should resign for having “lied”.

So – the above is a great example of how a hostile right-wing editorial team from the BBC, fronted by Andrew Marr, can take a positive vote-winning part of Labour’s education policy, spin it out of context and turn it into a negative, which an even more hostile right-wing press further exaggerate. 

If you know of any more systematic content analysis on this topic, please do share – sharing is caring – which is very much NOT a right wing idea of course!

Related Posts

In this post Craig Murray analyses the political background of senior bureaucrats at the BBC – finding that they range from Blairite to UKIP – in other words, very right wing.