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Primer on Media Analysis Methods

Prepared by M. Karen Walker · [email protected] · (703) 625-1298 This short paper presents a range of methods available to gain insight from media and public opinion data, and suggests opportunities for specific areas of study and analysis. Content analysis, media effects, and agenda-setting and frames analysis are discussed in detail. Regarding frames analysis, both social science and dramatistic perspectives are discussed. Media's Surveillance Function: Media Content Analysis Content analysis quite logically and facilely serves media's surveillance function. An axiom of media analysis dating back to early researchers such as Harold Lasswell is that the media fulfill three societal roles: surveillance of the larger environment, achieving consensus among segments of society, and transmission of culture including validation of civil society values. The media also serve to confer legitimacy to advocacy groups and leaders of social movements, whose success depends on gaining wider, mainstream attention. Media coverage amplifies and accelerates issues onto the public agenda. Media content analysis applied to a consistent sample over time will allow monitoring of an issue's progress from a state of disambiguation to legitimation and routinization. Conventional media content analysis was developed after World War II. Working from a behavioral sciences perspective, media content analysis stressed quantitative scientific methods for developing empirical indicators, in order to generalize and describe effects on audience knowledge, attitude and/or behavior. Defined as "the systematic assignment of communication content to categories according to rules, and the analysis of relationships involving those categories using statistical methods,"1 media content analysis typically measures frequency (e.g., percentage of coverage or frequency of mention within a sample), focus (how an issue is defined), and tone (e.g., critical, neutral, or supportive). More specifically, content analysis is concerned with the type of media selected for sampling, sample size, and coder reliability (e.g., the degree to which multiple reviewers achieve same or similar results from analyzing same content, or degree to which a single analyst achieves the same results using test/re-test means). Content analysis takes into account independent variables (source, message, recipient, channel, and context) to measure dependent variables (exposure, attention, interest, comprehension, attitude change, memory and information retrieval, decision to act, the act itself, and reinforcement and consolidation from a positive experience). Analyzing Media Messages is a user-friendly resource on content analysis methods and issues. In the 2005 second edition, Riffe, Lacy and Fico offer example research designs; define the types of units used in content analysis; guides readers through connections between content and units of analysis and measurement steps. The authors devote chapters to sampling, coding and reliability; validity; and data analysis. The use of computers in content analysis is also addressed, both to find and access content, and to analyze data.


Riffe, Lacy and Fico, "Analyzing Media Messages," 3.

2 Audience as Active Communicators: Media Effects and Uses and Gratification Research Content analysis can reach beyond the mechanistic and simple counting of stories and themes. A multifunctional approach draws conclusions about the relationship between seeking media content and public concern or activism. Media effects research approaches the communications process from the perspective of audience as active communicator, rather than passive recipient of a message. Media effects research isolates an independent variable to explain the impact of messages on receivers. Recent scholarship on media effects research is addressing how researchers can adapt traditional approaches to new technologies for the dissemination of news. More dynamic conceptual frameworks separately treat media effects on policy makers' attention to issues, and effects on their actual behavior or policy actions. The characteristics of the communications channel studied will guide methodological considerations. Eveland, for example, found that a "mix of attributes" approach better serves research in new media technologies, including clarity in conceptualizing multidimensional media, the ability to better explain why audiences attend to and/or learn more from one type of media compared to others, and the potential to generate new dependent variables important to theoretical development. Uses and gratifications research focuses on the social and psychological origins of needs that generate expectations of the mass media or other sources leading to differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities). Needs and gratifications may emanate from either direct or anecdotal experience. The principal elements of uses and gratifications identified in the literature are the psychological and social environment; needs and motives to communicate as well as communication behavior itself and consequences; the media environment and public attitudes and expectations toward same; and functional alternatives people have to using media. Media's Consensus and Culture Function: Agenda Setting Media's consensus-building and culture transmittal functions allow audiences to learn new information and behavior, and guide societal reconfiguration of attitudinal systems and their components. Agenda-setting rests on a truism, that individual opinions are the building blocks of collective opinion as a social force, but in themselves do not and cannot create that social force. Only when individual opinions are joined together and integrated with each other can opinions have significance beyond the level of individual thought and action. Agenda-setting offers a more nuanced model to explain media effects. In popular parlance, the media "doesn't tell us what to think, but what to think about." As a widely used methodology to assess linkages among media, public opinion and public policy, the agenda-setting model assumes that a vibrant and self-sustaining competition of ideas exists within the society or community under study. The agenda-setting process explains how proponents of a set of issues successfully compete, gaining attention of media professionals, the public, and policy elites. Consequently, agenda-setting is less instructive (even unfeasible) in communications environments in which opinions are unvoiced, either because of rhetorical reticence, in which moderate and qualified positions give way to extremist versions, or because of the more positive motivation of ego enhancement and desire for group acceptance.

3 From a methodological standpoint, the agenda setting model dictates that the amount of space or time devoted to a particular issue should be measured, and that the measurement should relate to either the amount of attention people pay to issues or to their judgments of issue importance. Specific to televised news media, Brosius and Kepplinger's work suggests that the strength of media effects might vary not only between, but also within issues. Longitudinal or time-series analyses provide several advantages to researchers in determining whether media influences public opinion or vice versa, in determining the strength of influence for different issues and attributes, and to compare media effects at different points in an issue's history. Researchers have applied the agenda-setting model to three sub-areas of inquiry: public agenda setting (issues as portrayed in mass media and public issue priorities); policy agenda setting (connection of media context to the issue agenda of public governing and legislative bodies or elected officials); and media agenda setting (the antecedents of media content relating to issue definition, selection and emphasis). Within these sub-areas, agenda-setting has proven scalable, and studies range from assessment of local advocacy issues to those of national and international concern. Agenda-setting analysis addresses both object and attribute salience, the former tied to the broad public agenda (e.g., Most Important Problem) and the latter concerning dominance of story lines. Attribute agenda-setting distinguishes between cognitive (fact-based) and affective (feeling and tone) attributes associated with an event or recurring public issues. Attribute agenda-setting is scalable, and can be applied to both simple, discrete questions and highly complex public policy dilemmas. A theory closely related to agenda-setting is media priming. Iyengar et. al. (1982) developed the media priming hypothesis in the process of conducting experiments on agenda-setting as a way to explain how views on public issues can have real-world political consequences, including the processes guiding the formation and expression views.2 The media priming hypothesis "suggests that the news media influence the standards by which political figures or public policies are judged by calling attention to some matters and ignoring others."3 As a result, "media alter the standards by which [public] policies or candidates for office are evaluated."4 Construction of Media Views and Public Response: Frames Analysis Attribute analysis within agenda-setting has converged with a related technique called frames analysis. Whereas agenda-setting explains how mass media content influences the public agenda, framing attends to how the media construct views and storylines and the public's response. Attributes of issues or events are reflected in headlines and news leads. They are also shorthand labels for frames, the ideas used to organize both news presentations and personal thoughts about an issue or event.

2 3

Kosicki, "Media Priming Effect," 63. Ibid., 64. 4 Ibid., 69.

4 McCombs and Ghanem offer the following trajectory of agenda setting and framing: Early last century Walter Lippmann (1922) observed that much of the behavior underlying public opinion is a response to mental images of events, an imagined pseudoenvironment that is treated as if it were the real environment. Those mental images are a key site where agenda setting and framing converge. One result of the continuing explication of agenda-setting theory over recent decades is that these two research traditions now share considerable common ground.5 Continuing, cross-fertilization offers several theoretical advantages: Within the agenda-setting tradition there is a vast wealth of research on the impact of mass media content on the public agenda and considerably less attention to the variety of influences shaping the media agenda. Within the framing tradition there has been considerable attention to the frames found in the media and sometimes the origins of those frames, with much less attention to the impact of those frames on the public. The convergence of these two research traditions will yield a greater unity in our knowledge of how the media's pictures of the world are constructed and, in turn, how the public responds to those pictures.6 It's important to note, however, that differences exist among scholars on whether framing is an extension to agenda setting or an independent process; studies have been published that appear to support one or the other position. Maher's description of the disciplinary "border dispute" follows: McCombs, one of the avatars of agenda setting, has argued that framing has become the second dimension of agenda-setting research (1995). Some scholars see this as a colonizing claim, and not everyone accepts it. For example, Kosicki (1993) has stated flatly that framing should not be views as an extension of agenda setting, because framing begins from an explicit cognitive perspective, and agenda setting does not.7 Kosicki provides the following description of framing: How issues emerge and evolve over time is a matter of considerable importance, and at present we have only a fragmentary account of the process. However, starting from the point of view that journalists do not merely mirror reality but rather ... actively construct news out of the available raw materials, we can begin to understand how issues are framed.8

5 6

McCombs and Ghanem, "Convergence of Agenda Setting and Framing," 67. Ibid., 68. 7 Maher, "Framing: An Emerging Paradigm," 83. 8 Kosicki, "Problems and Opportunities," 110-111.

5 Framing differs from agenda setting with its stronger emphasis on causal reasoning, and by including the environment in which communication takes places as part of the study.9 By focusing attention on political language and the definition of the issue under consideration, framing goes well beyond the traditional agenda-setting model, which takes issues as a given.10 The premise of media frames analysis is that how information about particular issues is presented in news reports affects judgment about those issues. Using this methodology, the analyst identifies the central organizing idea for news content. The central organizing idea supplies context and suggests what the issue is, through the use of selection, emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration, the latter a function of building the frame. Frames analysis offers a robust set of functions, to explain how a problem is defined, causes diagnosed, moral judgments made and remedies suggested. Frames help people locate, perceive, identify and label occurrences or life experience. Frames analysis treats the audience as a partner in construction of social meaning, that is, the combining, weighting and attaching of symbols to larger cultural ideas. Frames do not appear constructed whole; rather, they gain in complexity and coherence over time. Because a frame includes a moral evaluation, it is uniquely able among media analysis tools to tie technology issues to underlying civil society values. Framing can be either episodic (presents concrete events to illustrate broader issues) or thematic (offers aggregate or general evidence). Episodic frames are tactical, organizing information cognitively, to guide thinking about social phenomena in a certain way. Thematic frames are strategic, marshaling a cultural understanding and sustaining it beyond the immediate information. Just as agenda-setting can treat an objective and its attributes, frames can be used to discover and analyze central themes and aspects, as stories can have either a single or multiplicity of frames. Frames analysis is sufficiently mature for critical evaluation. Carragee and Roefs, for example, contend that a number of trends in framing research have neglected the relationship between media frames and broader issues of political and social power11. Communications researchers are also adding rigor to frames analysis, moving from the independent researcher's reliance on frame as metaphor to empirical and systematic definition and measurement to achieve acceptable levels of coder reliability. Analysts can use one of three approaches to measure frames: the media package, multidimensional concepts, and lists of frames. The media package approach (attributed to Gamson and Modigliani, 1989) presents in paragraph form key words and common language that help identify a particular frame. The paragraph is made up of paraphrased material and direct quotes to synopsize a given story line or claim, which researchers then look for in the sample selected for analysis. Quoting Gamson and Modigliani, the media package approach "offers a number of different condensing symbols that suggest the core frame and positions in shorthand, making it possible to display the package as a whole with a deft metaphor, catchphrase, or other symbolic device."12


Maher, "Framing: An Emerging Paradigm," 87. Kosicki, "Problems and Opportunities," 113. 11 Carragee and Roefs, "The Neglect of Power," 214. 12 Tankard, "Empirical Approach," 99.


6 Researchers using the multidimensional concepts approach have culled various elements or dimensions of story coverage, the combination of which is unique to the issue. Key terms are derived from advocacy group materials, with the synoptic paragraph as the unit of analysis. For example, elements or dimensions defining print stories on the topic of abortion include the writer's gender, article placement, terms describing pro-choice and pro-life groups, whether women's rights or fetus's rights considered paramount, morality orientation, discussion of when life begins, and terms used to refer to the fetus.13 A third approach, "list of frames," adds the idea of elaboration to include the function of building a frame.14 List of frames utilizes framing mechanisms themselves as a vital first step to identify the specific frames for the issue or topic under discussion. Key terms are derived through examination of media content itself. These include headlines and kickers; subheads; photographs and their captions; leads; selection of sources and their affiliations; selection of quotes and pull quotes; logos; statistics, charts and graphs; and concluding statements or paragraphs. An advantage is that coders can measure interdependent indicators. Beyond Media Content Analysis: A Dramatistic Perspective on Frames Analysis For an alternative perspective on frames analysis, Erving Goffman in his 1974 seminal work, Frame Analysis, defined frames as "schemata of interpretation" that enable individuals "to locate, perceive, identify, and label" occurrences or life experiences.15 From this dramatistic perspective, we use frames in every day life to see things in new ways, continually assessing what we know as true against new circumstances. Frames contribute to the dialectical tension of symbolic interaction. To frame an issue "is to participate in public deliberation strategically, both for one's own sense making and for contesting the frames of others."16 An assumption of the dramatistic or symbolic perspective is that individuals exercise some level of deliberate, heuristic or paradigmatic choice in adopting one frame over another. Choices are aided (or conversely constrained) by individuals' capacity to access cultural and rhetorical resources (i.e., social agency). Accordingly: Such choices often are imparted by and resonate with some broader ideological perspective. ... Therefore, framing is an ideological contest over not only the scope of an issue, but also over matters such as who is responsible and who is affected, which ideological principles or enduring values are relevant, and where the issue should be addressed. ... In such a contest, participants maneuver strategically to achieve their political and communicative objectives.17

13 14

For the list of story dimensions identified by Swenson (1990), see Tankard, "Empirical Approach," 100. Tankard, "Empirical Approach," 101. 15 Goffman, "Frame Analysis," 21. 16 Pan and Kosicki, "Framing as a Strategic Action," 39. 17 Ibid., 40.

7 The language we use to define our experiences expresses our attitudes and understandings of the world, and creates motives in others through identification and construction of social reality. Frames involve linguistic choices by which we typify social conditions and policy concerns and interpret events. If frames define boundaries of discourse about an issue ­ and serve to categorize elements such as circumstance, actors, acts and purpose ­ individuals using the same frame have the potential to constitute a discursive community capable of collective action.18 Gamson coined the term "frame sponsorship" to describe the process by which individuals and groups strategically cultivate rhetorical resources and translating them into framing power.19 Framing and social movement identities are closely related. Using the example of the U.S. peace movement: Different frames of the peace movement were associated with different types of actors ... Although some of the actors acquired the image of "moderates," others acquired the image of "radicals." Acquiring such an identity and projecting such images are part of the actor-speaker's strategic choice of framing tactics ... Successful framing requires making clear boundaries separating one from others.20 Working within the dramatistic mode, therefore, framing is more than "media stimuli affecting audiences."21 Frames analysis offers insight into discursive choices, as well as the cultural, ideological, institutional and social structural supports and political alignments governing the choices made.

18 19

Pan and Kosicki, "Framing as a Strategic Action," 41-42. Ibid., 45. 20 Ibid., 44. 21 Ibid., 48.

8 Works Cited and Consulted Beaudoin, Christopher E. and Esther Thorson. "Testing the Cognitive Mediation Model: The Roles of News Reliance and Three Gratifications Sought." Communication Research 31, no. 4 (August 2004): 446-471. Brosius, Hans-Bernd and Hans Mathias Kepplinger "Linear and Nonlinear Models of AgendaSetting in Television." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 36, no 1 (1992): 5-24. Bryant, Jennings and Dolf Zillman, eds. Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002. Carragee, Kevin M. and Wim Roefs. "The Neglect of Power in Recent Framing Research." Journal of Communication (June 2004): 214-233. Crespi, Irving. The Public Opinion Process: How the People Speak. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997. Dearing, James W. and Everett M. Rogers. Agenda-Setting. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1996. Edelstein, Alex S. "Thinking About the Criterion Variable in Agenda-Setting Research." Journal of Communication 43, no. 2 (Spring 1993): 85-99. Eveland, William P., Jr. "A `Mix of Attributes' Approach to the Study of Media Effects and New Communication Technologies." Journal of Communication (September 2003): 395-410. Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: Essays on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1974. Hansen, Anders. "The Media and the Social Construction of the Environment." Media, Culture and Society 13 (1991): 443-458.

9 Kosicki, Gerald M. "The Media Priming Effect: News Media and Considerations Affecting Political Judgments." In The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice, edited by James Price Dillard and Michael Pfau, 63-81. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002. Kosicki, Gerald M.. "Problems and Opportunities in Agenda-Setting Research." Journal of Communication 43, no 2 (Spring 1993): 100-127. Lacy, Stephen, Daniel Riffe, Stacy Stoddard, Margin Hugh and Kuang-Kuo Chang. "Sample Size for Newspaper Content Analysis in Multi-year Studies." Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 78, no 4 (Winter 2001): 836-845. Lombard, Matthew, Jennifer Snyder-Duch, and Cheryl Campanella Bracken. "Content Analysis in Mass Communication: Assessment and Reporting of Intercoder Reliability." Human Communication Research 28, no 4 (October 2002): 587-604. Maher, Michael T. "Framing: An Emerging Paradigm or a Phase of Agenda Setting?" In Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Understanding of the Social World, edited by Stephen D. Reese, Oscar H. Gandy, Jr., and August E. Grant, 83-94. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. McCombs, Maxwell and Salma I. Ghanem. "The Convergence of Agenda Setting and Framing." In Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Understanding of the Social World, edited by Stephen D. Reese, Oscar H. Gandy, Jr., and August E. Grant, 67-81. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. Moy, Patricia and Dietram A. Scheufele. "Media Effects on Political and Social Trust." Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 77, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 744-759.

10 Nisbet, Matthew C., Dietram A. Scheufele, James Shanahan, Patricia Moy, Dominique Brossard and Bruce V. Lewenstein. "Knowledge, Reservations, or Promise? A Media Effects Model for Public Perceptions of Science and Technology." Communication Research 29, no. 5 (October 2002): 584-608. Pan, Zhongdang and Gerald M. Kosicki. "Framing as a Strategic Action in Public Deliberation." In Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Understanding of the Social World, edited by Stephen D. Reese, Oscar H. Gandy, Jr., and August E. Grant, 35-66. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. Riffe, Daniel, Stephen Lacy and Michael W. Drager. "Sample Size in Content Analysis of Weekly News Magazines." Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 73, no. 3 (Autumn 1996): 635-644. Riffe, Daniel, Stephen Lacy and Frederick G. Fico. Analyzing Media Messages: Using Quantitative Content Analysis in Research, 2nd. ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005. Strodthoff, Glenn G., Robert P. Hawkins, and A. Clay Schoenfeld. "Media Roles in a Social Movement: a Model of Ideology Diffusion." Journal of Communication (Spring 1985): 134-153. Tankard, James W., Jr. "The Empirical Approach to the Study of Media Framing." In Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Understanding of the Social World, edited by Stephen D. Reese, Oscar H. Gandy, Jr., and August E. Grant, 95-106. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.

11 Zillman, Dolf, Lei Chen, Silva Knobloch and Coy Callison. "Effects of Lead Framing on Selective Exposure to Internet News Reports." Communication Research 31, no. 1 (February 2004): 58-81.


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