Research Methods in Mass Communication

What is research?

Regardless of how the word research is used, it essentially means the same thing: an attempt to discover something. We all do this every day. Research can be very informal, with only a few (or no) specific plans or steps, or it can be formal, where a researcher follows highly defined and exacting procedures. The lack of exacting procedures in informal research does not mean the approach is incorrect, and the use of exacting procedures does not automatically make formal research correct. Both procedures can be good or bad—it depends on how the research is conducted. The important thing for all researchers to understand is the correct methods to follow to ensure the best results.

Research is divided into two major sectors, academic and private, which are sometimes called “basic” and “applied,” respectively, although we do not use these terms in this text because research in both sectors can be basic or applied. The two sectors are equally important and in many cases work together to answer mass media questions.

Research phases in Media

  • Phase 1: The medium itself. There is an interest in the medium itself. What is it? How does it work? What technology does it involve? How is it similar to or different from what we already have? What functions or services does it provide? Who will have access to the new medium? How much will it cost?
  • Phase 2: Uses and users of the medium. Begins once the medium is developed. In this phase, specific information is accumulated about the uses and the users of the medium. How do people use the medium in real life? Do they use it for information only, to save time, for entertainment, or for some other reason? Do children use it? Do adults use it? Why? What gratifications does the new medium provide? What other types of information and entertainment does the new medium replace? Were original projections about the use of the medium correct? What uses are evident other than those that were predicted from initial research?
  • Phase 3: Effects of the medium. Includes investigations of the social, psychological, and physical effects of the medium. How much time do people spend with the medium? Does it change people’s perspectives about anything? What do the users of the medium want and expect to hear or see? Are there any harmful effects related to using the medium? In what way, if any, does the medium help people? Can the medium be combined with other media or technology to make it even more useful?
  • Phase 4: How the medium can be improved. Research is conducted to determine how the medium can be improved, either in its use or through technological developments. Can the medium provide information or entertainment to more types of people? How can new technology be used to perfect or enhance the sight and/or sound of the medium? Is there a way to change the content to be more valuable or entertaining?

One theory of mass media, later named the “hypodermic needle” model of communication, suggested that mass communicators need only “shoot” messages at an audience and those messages would produce pre-planned and almost universal effects. The belief then was that all people behave in similar ways when they encounter media messages. We know now that individual differences among people rule out this overly simplistic view.

Media Research and Scientific Method

Scientific research is an organized, objective, controlled, qualitative or quantitative empirical analysis of one or more variables. The terms that define the scientific research method describe a procedure that has been accepted for centuries. All research, whether formal or informal, begins with a basic question or proposition about a specific phenomenon.

Methods of Knowing

There are several possible approaches in answering research questions. Kerlinger and Lee (2000), using definitions provided nearly a century ago by C. S. Peirce, discuss four approaches to finding answers, or methods of knowing: tenacity, intuition, authority, and science.

  • Method of Tenacity: true because it is always true (ex. I don’t believe advertising because my parents said so).
  • Method of Intuition: true because it is self-evidence (ex. A Creative Director uses certain method and always work).
  • Method of Authority: true because an authoritarian person said so.
  • Method of Science: scientific method; definition: “an organized, objective, controlled, qualitative or quantitative empirical analysis of one or more variables”. Scientific method is the standard procedures

Research Procedures

The purpose of the scientific method of research is to provide an objective, unbiased collection and evaluation of data. To investigate research questions and hypotheses systematically, both academic and private sector researchers follow a basic eight-step procedure. However, simply following the eight research steps does not guarantee that the research is good, valid, reliable, or useful. An almost countless number of intervening variables (influences) can destroy even the best-planned research project. The situation is similar to someone assuming he or she can bake a cake by just following the recipe. The cake may be ruined by an oven that doesn’t work properly, spoiled ingredients, altitude, or numerous other variables. The typical research process consists of these eight steps:

  1. Select a problem.
  2. Review existing research and theory (when relevant).
  3. Develop hypotheses or research questions.
  4. Determine an appropriate methodology/research design.
  5. Collect relevant data.
  6. Analyze and interpret the results.
  7. Present the results in an appropriate form.
  8. Replicate the study (when necessary).

Notes: Step 4 includes deciding whether to use qualitative research (such as focus groups or one-on-one interviews) with small samples or quantitative research (such as telephone interviews), in which large samples are used to allow results to be generalized to the population under study. Steps 2 and 8 are optional in the private sector, where some research is conducted to answer a specific and unique question related to a future decision, such as whether to invest a large sum of money in a developing medium. In this type of project, there generally is no previous research to consult, and there seldom is a reason to replicate the study because a decision is made based on the first analysis. However, if the research produces inconclusive results, the study is revised and replicated. 

Each step in the eight-step process depends on all the others to produce a maximally efficient research study. For example, before a literature search is possible, the researcher must have a clearly stated research problem; to design the most efficient method of investigating a problem, the researcher must know what types of studies have been conducted; and so on. In addition, all the steps are interactive—a literature search may refine and even alter the initial research problem, or a study conducted previously by another company or business in the private sector might expedite (or complicate) the current research effort.

Determining Topic Relevance

  • Q1: Is the topic too broad?
  • Q2: Can the problem really be investigated?
  • Q3: Can the data be analyzed?
  • Q4: Is the problem significant?
  • Q5: Can the result of the study be generalized?
  • Q6: What cost and time are involved in the analysis?
  • Q7: Is the planned approach appropriate to the project?
  • Q8: Is there any potential harms to the subjects?

Validity in Research Methods

Internal Validity:

The study is investigating the right subjects or variables. “Artifacts” or “confounding variables”

Factors in internal validity:

  1. History: events during study infulence subjects.
  2. Maturation: subjects’ psychological change.
  3. Testing: subject is influenced by the test.
  4. Instrumentation: deterioration during study (“instrument decay”).
  5. Statistical regression: extreme response influences the study result.

External Validity:

The study is using valid methodology and therefore can be generalized.

Factors in external validity:

  1. Experimental mortality
  2. Sample selection
  3. Demand characteristics
  4. Experimenter bias
  5. Evaluation apprehension
  6. Causal time order
  7. Diffusion or imitation of treatments
  8. Compensation
  9. Compensatory rivalry
  10. Demoralization


Mass Communication Theory: Definitions and Eras

What is Mass Communication?

Mass Communication is “when a source, typically an organization, employs a technology as a medium to communicate with a large audience“. Questions: If you send an email to a “mailing list,” or if you write a note in your blog or facebook, does mass communication occure here? Or if a marketing company sends you a “customized” email, is it a mass communication process?

Most theories will be discussed in the book (“Mass Communication Theory: Foundation, Ferment and Future”, Baran: 2010) were developed before the modern communication revolutions (the internet, etc). New communication technologies enable us to communicate differently from the mass communication “era”. We need to think of mediated communication as existing on a continuum between interpersonal communication and mass communication on the other end.

Today, the number and variety of mass communication theories have steadily increased. More or less independent body of knowledge from the social science and humanities literature, developed by scholars from social sciences (sociology, psychology) and humanities (philosophy, literary analysis). Some theories are grand, some are “small” and specific.

There are 4 major categories in Mass Communication Theory:

  • Postpositivism
    • Positivism: Knowledge can be gained only through empirical, observable, measurable phenomena (physics, chemistry, etc.). Do you think it will be applicable to study a society? Why?
    • Postpositivism: based on empirical observation guided by scientific method, but recognizing the complexity of human behavior. Goals: explanation, prediction and control. Case study: Indonesian political marketing
  • Hermeneutic theory
    • Study of understanding, especially through the systematic interpretation of action or texts. Began as the study or interpretation of the Bible and sacred texts. Goals: To understand how and why a behavior occurs in the social world.
  • Critical theory
    • Theory seeking emancipation and change  in a dominant social order. Starting from the assumption that some aspects of the social world are deeply flawed and in need of transformation. Goals: Transformation of the society. Example: Karl Marx.
  • Normative theory
    • Theory explaining how a media system should operate in order to conform to or realize a set of ideal social values. Goals: to set an ideal standard against which the operation of a given media system can be judged. Commonly used by theoriests interested in press role in democracy.

Four Eras of Media Theory

Theories will be discussed chronologically, so you have a broad and historically grounded perspective on media. It does not mean that theories developed in orderly, chronologically stable way. Also, older theories are not completely obsolete. Newer theories, as radical as it look, for the most part are updated version of old ideas. Notes: These theories were developed in the Western culture context. Are they applicable in non-Western cultures? This is a big question.

  1. The Era of Mass Society and Mass Culture Theory. Begun at the 2nd half of the 19th century. Mass society theory: Perspective on Western, industrial society that attributess an influential but often negative role to media. Media was feared because it was regarded as a threat to the traditional social order. The audience was considered as a passive target of media. Will be discussed later: Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft (Tonnies); mechanical and organic solidarity (Durkheim); propaganda theory; magic bullet theories; normative theories of media; social responsibility theory; etc.
  2. The Emergence of a Scientific Perspective. Starting in 1940s, especially by Paul Lazarsfeld who fled from Nazi Germany to the US. The use of scientific approach, carefully designed field experiment and measurement, to observe media influence on society. “Media were not as powerful as previously imagined” Thus, the effect of media towards the audience is limited. “People had numerous ways of resisting media influence and were influenced by many competing factors”. “Media seemed to reinforce existing social trends and strenghthen rather that threaten the status quo”. We will discuss the studies by Lazarsfeld, Hovland, etc.
  3. The Era of Limited Effects. By the mid-1960, the debate between mass society and limited effects was over, in which the latter gained more support. The empirical research findings confirmed the latter view. Since no “big problem” in media, Berelson (1959) declared the field communication research to be dead. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, the limited effects paradigm dominated American mass communication research. We will discuss: information flow theory, diffusion theory, phenomenistic theory, etc.
  4. The Era of Cultural Criticism. Mass society notions continued to flourish in Europe. Both left wing and right wing concerns about the power of media, learning from the trauma of the WW II. During the 1960s, neomarxist in Britain developed a school of social theory widely referred to as British cultural studiesNeomarxist: Social theorists asserting that media enable dominant social elites to maintain power. In North America, there was an attempt ot create an “american culture studies” (Innis and McLuhan, for example).

The Emergence of Moderate Effects; The limited effects paradigm have undergone a transformation, due to the pressure of cultural studies and new comm technology. The idea of active audience that uses media content to create meaningful experience. Acknowledges that media effects can occur over longer period of time (while limited effect was unable to understand the media role in cultural changes).

The diversity of theory in mass communication

So you’ll find many theories in mass comm. No single theory could explain all aspects of mass comm. There will not be a “final theory” in mass comm. Macroscopic theory and microcospic theory. It is difficult to implement scientific method to social phenomena. There are four reasons why it is difficult to implement scientific method to social phenomena:

  • Most of the significant and interesting forms of human behavior are quite difficult to measure
  • Human behavior is exceedingly complex
  • Humans have goals and are self-reflexive
  • The simple notion of causality is sometimes troubling when it is applied to ourselves

Conclusion: The situation is complicated because social science itself is somewhat schizophrenic—it is many different things to many different people. However, theories need to be developed to understand the phenomenon, albeit partially.

For further readings:


PS: Thanks to Mr. Putut Widjanarko for the lectures.