When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

I’ve noticed what might be called a ‘long-tail‘ of search referrals from people looking for information on content analysis. As a result, I’ve decided to write up my experiences with content analysis in some detail in this post.

For a brief primer on what content analysis actually is, please see this Wikipedia page.

My introduction to content analysis came by way of a first year research assignment in which I considered violence in The Simpsons, one of my favourite televison programs. As a first year undergraduate, I was then grappling with methods I really didn’t understand. I probably thought that things like violent acts could be quantified and captured without any further explanation or qualification and that such quantification itself was an academic achievement. Anyway, long story short, I did very well on that assignment, and realised that there was probably some value in content analysis as a research method. So, when I came to write my honours thesis on The Simpsons at the end of my undergraduate degree, it was inevitable I would look to use content analysis again. My academic rationale for employing the content analysis method was more bombastic (in the academic custom), saying the complementary combination of content analysis and discourse analysis “simultaneously delivers a detailed quantitative dataset drawn from manifest content within the show while also allowing a rigorous application of qualitative analytical techniques.”1

The actual method of content analysis consisted of a coding sheet in the form of a very large spreadsheet, with a row for each of the 226 episodes and columns for season and episode numbers, episode title, each of the seven categories I was coding, and room for comments or observations. You can view it here2. A few things to note:

  • My content analysis coding sheet does not resemble a traditional content analysis coding sheet that might be found in text books, but it does serve the same purpose. This is a unique format I developed for two reasons: 1) in response to the type and size of the dataset, and; 2) to be more efficient because I could subsequently skip the step of transferring data from a traditional coding sheet to a spreadsheet.
  • The numbers filling the fields of this sheet relate to each of the eight ‘nations’ (plus 9 for other) that I was looking for in the data. The reasons for choosing these eight nations are set out in detail in the thesis itself.
  • Along the way, I took notes about almost every instance of data collected. These can be viewed by clicking on the cell of interest.
  • The reasoning for choosing each of the seven categories is set out in detail in the thesis itself, but (briefly) is largely reliant on categories identified as relevant by other authors during my literature review.
  • Now that the practicality is out of the way, below is some of the theory behind choosing content analysis as a method and how and why I shaped it to my needs.

    A quote from the thesis:

    Hansen et al. note: “content analysis is and should be enriched by the theoretical framework offered by other more qualitative approaches, while bringing to these a methodological rigour, prescriptions for use, and systematicity”3. As such, content analysis was selected to provide a significant amount of data, which could be tested and triangulated against the theoretical paradigms of a discourse analysis.4

    And another:

    It [content analysis] is “based on measuring the amount of something… in a representative sampling of some mass-mediated popular art form”5. Content analysis allows media content to be quantified in a “systematic and reliable fashion”5.6

    There are some negative aspects and biases of content analysis, which can be largely overcome by pairing it with other suitable methods of research. On the whole I have found it can provide a useful dataset upon which to base further research. It is also worth recognising the positivist nature of content analysis, which is perhaps one of the most critical reasons for ensuring you also conduct discourse analysis or similar. There are six key steps to a successful and well-rounded content analysis: 1) defining the research questions; (2) selecting media and samples; (3) defining analytical categories; (4) constructing a coding schedule; (5) piloting the coding schedule; (6) data preparation and analysis. Provided you undertake all of these, there is no reason why it cannot be a useful method in many research studies and, in particular, of television.

    Please contact me in the comments or via Twitter if you have any questions, comments, or useful resources.

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    1. Page 13 of my complete thesis. []
    2. You’re welcome to use the data for your own purposes, but please link to either this site or my Twitter profile if you do. []
    3. Hansen, A., Cottle, S., Negrine, R., & Newbold, C. (1998). Content Analysis. Mass Communication Research Methods (pp. 91–129). Basingstoke: Macmillan. []
    4. Page 29 []
    5. Berger, A. (1998). Content Analysis: Newspaper Comics Pages. Media Research Techniques (pp. 23–33). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. [] []
    6. Page 31 []