Many parts of the mass media are notoriously inaccurate. Sociologists would, for example, be unlikely to turn solely to a national newspaper for an objective account of social life in Britain. Although some parts of the mass media may provide sociologists with useful data, their main importance is as objects of study. As with official statistics, mass media reports can be used to analyse the ideologies of those who produce them. Some sociologists have been highly critical of parts of the mass media for producing distorted images of society which might mislead the public or adversely affect the socialization of children.
There are a number of different approaches to carrying out content analysis, in which researchers analyse the content of documents. These may be largely quantitative, largely qualitative, or combine both approaches. Ray Pawson identifies four main approaches to carrying out content analysis.
1) Formal content analysis- here the emphasis is on objectivity and reliability. A systematic sample of texts collected for study, a classification system is devised to identify different features of this text, and these features are then counted.
2) Thematic analysis - Pawson says “the idea is to understand the encoding process, especially the intentions that lie behind the production of mass media documents. The usual strategy is to pick on a specific area of reportage and subject it to a very detailed analysis in the hope of unearthing the underlying purposes and intentions of the authors of the communication.”
3) Textual analysis- this approach involves examining the 'linguistic devices within the documents in order to show how texts can be influential in encouraging a particular interpretation.
4) Audience analysis- this approach overcomes some of the problems of earlier approaches by focusing on the responses of the audience as well as the content of the mass media. This then provides some check on the researcher's interpretation of the message and it recognizes that audiences actively interpret messages rather than just being passive. Sometimes audiences reject the messages apparently being advanced by the media.
The internet as a secondary source - the internet has rapidly established itself as an invaluable source for sociology students, lecturers and researchers. It makes a vast amount of material from a very diverse range of sources readily available to anyone with internet access. However as Stuart Stein (2002) argues, there is little or no vetting of material on most internet sites.
Stein believes internet sources need to be used with particular caution. He suggests that the following criteria need to be considered when using material from the internet.
1) Authorship- the user needs to identify whether the authorship is clearly identified and whether the identity of the complier of the page is also clear.
2) Authority of the author - the credibility and authority of the author can be evaluated in terms of criteria such as their qualifications, previous publications and the organizations in which they work.
3) Authority of the material - the material has more authority if, like published work, there are references to the sources used by the writer. This allows the user to check whether the material faithfully represents the sources consulted.
4) Authority of the site/ organization - Stein suggests it is a reasonable assumption that material provided on the website of a major international organization, a research institute, a think tank, or a college or university is likely to be more authoritative than similar material on a personal web page. However even if the site appears reputable some cautions need to be exercised. There may be a disclaimer in which the organization refuses to accept responsibility for the content, or there may be material on a university site which has been produced by a student rather than an academic.
5) Currency- the user of the web pages as a secondary source also needs to consider whether the pages are up to date or current. This is not always possible as some sites indicate when material is added. Although such sites need to be used cautiously, the material may still be useful despite the lack of dates.
6) Pressure groups objectivity - as in the case of other secondary sources, researchers, lecturers, and students need to be aware of the interests of those who have produced the web material.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex