Media Analysis | An Explanation for Undergrads (2019)

media analysis examples and definition

Media analysis is a research methodology used in mass communication studies, media studies, cultural studies, and the social sciences.

It is defined as the analysis and critique of media. The aim is to understand media’s potential to impact individuals and society.

Media analysis has two main purposes:

  1. Critique of Media: It can identify how groups in society such as women and people of color are represented in the media to help us understand systemic racism and sexism. 
  2. Media Campaign Research: It can also help media companies identify gaps in the advertising landscape to better promote their own products.

What is Media Analysis? (Some Definitions)

Media analysis studies texts: books, letters, videos, television shows, blogs, movies, newspapers, etc. 

It looks directly at media texts (rather than interviewing media producers) and reflects on what they collectively say about an issue.

Here are some useful scholarly definitions that you could use in an essay:

  • Media analysis is the study of “what is said on a given subject in a given place at a given time” within the media (Lasswell, Lerner and Pool, 1952, p. 34) – this is one of the first ever definitions.
  • “Content analysis is a research method that uses a set of procedures to make valid inferences from text” (Weber, 1990, p. 9)
  • “Critical media analysis means thinking critically about the impact of the media on the distribution of power in society.” (Stocchetti & Kukkonen, 2011, p. 13)
  • It “is a research technique that is based on measuring the amount of something (violence, negative portrayals of women, or whatever) in a representative sampling of some mass-mediated popular form of art” (Berger, 2005, p. 25)
  • It is “a technique for gathering and analysing the content of text.” (Neuman, 1997, p. 272)

For more on definitions of media analysis, a useful resource is: Macnamara (2005).

What is its Purpose?

Media analysis can take place for two purposes: to improve media production (done by communication organizations) and to critique media’s impacts on society (done by critical scholars and activists). 

Purpose 1: For communication organizations 

If a company wants to sell more of its products or get greater market share, it will look at the media landscape and determine what media seems to be most effective and what seems to be least effective. With greater knowledge of the media landscape, they can create new media texts that more effectively promote their products.

They analyze media to figure out:

  • How media can influence its viewers
  • Which mediums are most effective in influencing viewers
  • How media shapes public discussion on issues
  • Which issues or perspectives might be missed by media

Purpose 2: For university scholars and activists 

Critical scholars and activists look at media and how it impacts our world. Normally, they aim to highlight how media works to reinforce and distribute power relationships within society. 

So, they may use media analysis to critique:

  • Whether and to what extent media bias and cultural factors influence public discourse
  • How media represents social groups such as women, people of color, etc. 
  • How media contributes to stereotypes
  • How media representation of groups of people has changed over time

How to do a Media Analysis

Media content analysis can be conducted in multiple ways. 

But, media analysis has two core elements that must always be looked at systematically: the text and its content.

1. The text

The text is the thing you look at while conducting your analysis. 

Neuman (1997, p. 273) describes a text as: “anything written, visual, or spoken that serves as a medium for communication”

Usually, we try to look at a wide range of texts within a defined period of time (say, maybe all superhero movies in 2020; or, all newspaper articles published in national newspapers about Trump in July 2020). This helps increase the validity of the analysis.

Texts can be:

  • Newspaper articles
  • Books
  • Email chains
  • Television shows
  • Advertisements
  • Movies
  • Blogs
  • YouTube videos
  • Podcasts
  • Etc. etc. etc.

2. The content

The content is the ‘stuff’ that you analyze within the text.

Neuman (1997, p. 273) defines content as “words, meanings, pictures, symbols, ideas, themes, or any message that can be communicated.”

Content can be broken down into four categories:

  • Written: words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.
  • Sonic / Audible: spoken words, music, sound effects, etc.
  • Visual: Images, pictures, color schemes, camera angles, facial expressions, etc.
  • Motive: The pace at which things move, the direction they move, etc.

To analyze this content, we might count the amount of positive versus negative statements about someone, how a camera frames someone as powerful or weak, the amount of time someone is given to speak, and so forth.

Quantitative Media Analysis: Methods and Techniques

‘Quantitative’ approaches to media analysis use measurable scientific approaches to analyze media texts. These approaches will involve counting exact numbers, ratios, percentages, etc. to get objective facts about media representation.

Below are the two major quantitative approaches to media analysis.

1. Quantitative Content Analysis

Quantitative methods count the numbers of mentions, keywords, latent semantic keywords, etc. in order to create measurable comparisons. 

Comparisons can be made between media texts (e.g. “Which media are more inclusive of women?”, or between elements within a text (e.g. “What is the ratio between white and non-white representation within this text?”).

Usually, software tools are employed during quantitative content analysis to create a reliable and objective overview of media representation.

2. Laswell’s 5-Step Method

Laswell’s method is the oldest method of media analysis. For Laswell, you can do a simple critique of media representation by asking the following 5 questions:

  1. Who? Look at the media channel doing the communication. Are they respectable? Are they historically biased? Do they follow journalistic ethics? Who funds them?
  2. Says What? Look at what is being said. How does it frame the issue?
  3. In which Channel? Look at the means of communication. Is it television, blogs, podcasts, etc.? How does the channel / medium impact the message being communicated? Is it a medium that attracts millenials, or baby boomers?
  4. To Whom? Look at who the target audience is. What might this say about why the message is framed the way it is?
  5. With what Effect? Has the media had an impact on politics, public discourse, the growth of certain movements, or the increased sale of certain products?

Read in-depth here: Laswell’s 5-Step Method

3. Advantages and Disadvantages of a Quantitative Approach

Advantages of a quantitative approach

  • It can seem more reliable because it provides objective figures.
  • It provides direct measurable comparisons.

Disadvantages of a quantitative approach

  • Lack of context. Often, only subjective human analysis can identify how media manipulates people.
  • Media analysis is about looking at how media is manipulative; it’s hard to use machines to pick up on the nuances of media techniques.

Qualitative Media Analysis: Methods and Techniques

Qualitative methods are much more common for media analysis these days. Many researchers have realized it’s very hard to provide a deep analysis of media texts using hard scientific methods. 

There are a lot of little human nuances in meda that require deep explanations and a critical human eye critiquing texts. This is where qualitative approaches are very beneficial.

Below are the two major qualitative approaches to media analysis.

1. Social Semiotics

‘Semiotics’ is the study of signs and symbols. It was invented by Ferdinand de Saussure who explored how ‘signs’ create ‘meaning’.

‘Social semiotics’ is a more contemporary approach, which not only looks at signs. It also looks at how signs get their meaning from culture. For example, a red octagon doesn’t naturally mean ‘Stop sign’. But, in our culture, we know that it nearly always means that because it’s the meaning our culture gave to the sign.

How to do a Social Semiotic Media Analysis

  1. Closely examine the texts you want to analyse. Watch / read / listen to them and take notes on the contents:
    • Sounds: What sounds are present and how do they influence the message? For example, if there is classical music, it may mean a different audience is appealed to than rap music. We know this because we have a finger on the pulse of our culture – we know what social groups rap music would appeal to.
    • Words: Are there words or phrases that jump out to you for the way they frame particular groups? Take note of these words and phrases and how frequently they’re used.
    • Images: How do the images influence us? If the color scheme is mostly blue, perhaps the text is designed to soothe and calm us. If there are images of someone in a white doctor’s coat, is it an advertisement trying to tell us that the product is backed by science? If there are low camera angles looking up at someone, is it trying to make that person appear powerful? Etc.

A social semiotic analysis would then create a group of themes to discuss. A theme might be: “Women are represented as powerful in this text.” Another might be: “Most dental advertisements use scientific language to convince viewers.”

For more on social semiotics, I recommend: The Grammar of Visual Design by Kress and Van Leeuwen. APA citation:

Kress, G. R., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. Sydney: Psychology Press.

2. Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis explores discourses (messages circulating in society). It was created by Michel Foucault in the 1970s. It has become a very popular way of examining media texts to figure out how power is reproduced through media bias.

How to do a Media Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis is very similar to social semiotics. In fact, I would recommend combining the two.

However, discourse analysis is unique in that its focus is on power. It wants to explore how media silences some people and empowers others.

Here are some unique aspects of a discourse analysis to look out for when looking at media texts:

  • Who is silenced by the text? When closely examining your texts, think about who is absent in the text. This means not just looking at what’s said and shown. You also need to look at what isn’t said. What’s not shown is just as important as what is shown.
  • What do silences say about the message? Once you know what isn’t said and shown, what can you infer from this? Is the media conveniently excluding certain points because they don’t adhere to capitalist consumer society? Are marginalized groups and their views missing from mainstream media?
  • What is presumed as ‘true’ and what is presumed as ‘untrue’ within media messages? According to discourse analysis, truth is produced by discourse (the messages that circulate in society). So, discourse analysis critiques what is presumed to be true and untrue within media and how this might change over time.

For more on discourse analysis, I recommend Norman Fairclough’s work. See:

Fairclough, N. (2010). Critical analysis of media discourse. In: Thornham, S., Bassett, C., & Marris, P. (Eds.). Media studies: A reader. New York: NYU Press.

3. Advantages and Disadvantages of a Qualitative Approach

Advantages of a qualitative approach

  • Human communication is very hard to measure quantitatively. Quantitative methods can’t pick up the subtle cultural, social and political messages in media.
  • Qualitative research gives deep, detailed explanations using ‘thick description’ of data. It can be very convincing, if done well.

Disadvantages of a qualitative approach

  • Validity and authority is hard to achieve because researcher interpretation is central to this style of research.
  • It has been accused of bias and hyper-subjectivity. Many people see it as a psudo-science where any researcher can come up with any results they want so long as their arguments are convincing. See: the grievance studies hoax.

Examples of Media Analysis

Example 1: Does the Media have Liberal Political Bias?

A simple example.

You want to find out if the media has political bias.

So, you conduct a study: You choose to look at newspaper reports about Trump.

You realize there are so many newspaper reports about Trump that you need to narrow it down a little more. How about the media’s reaction in the week following his election?

There’s still a lot of media out there about that.

So let’s narrow it down more: to the most influential newspapers.

Now you have something to work with. A media analysis research question:

“Were the major newspapers in the United States politically biased against Donald Trump in the immediate aftermath of his election?”

To define your scope, you come up with a scope for your collection of texts: 

  • Collect all articles in the top 5 national newspapers (by sales) that discuss the presidential election between November 8 and November 15, 2016.

You find, say, 215 articles.

Now you need to choose a methodology. Let’s say you choose social semiotic analysis.

You read all the articles and take notes on:

  • All metaphors used
  • All negative evaluative phrases
  • All positive evaluative phrases
  • All comparisons to past presidents
  • Etc.

After reading the articles and taking notes, you review the notes and find three themes:

  1. 4 of 5 newspaper outlets have overall bias against Trump
  2. 1 of 5 newspapers predominantly framed Trump as a ‘hero’
  3. 3 of 5 newspapers predominantly framed Trump as a ‘traitor’

You could now write a media analysis essay explaining your key themes, with examples from the text to back up your claims.

Example 2: How do Car Advertisements on Television Represent Women?

You work for a car company in their media department. They want to start advertising a new truck to women to increase their sales in an underrepresented market.

So, you conduct a media analysis.

Your research question is simple:

“How do Car Advertisements on Television Represent Women?”

You gather all car advertisements in the national archives of advertising from the past 3 years. It’s 250 advertisements.

You decide to conduct a media discourse analysis.

You watch all advertisements, and take notes on:

  • How many advertisements depict women
  • What roles women take in the advertisements
  • How women are spoken about in the advertisements
  • Etc.

You review your notes, and find three themes:

  1. Women are only shown in 25% of advertisements
  2. Women are driving trucks in only 5% of advertisements
  3. When women are depicted, they’re predominantly sexualized and shown as objects of men’s desire

You return to your employer with your data. You argue that there is a gap in the market for advertising trucks to women as very few other advertisers are appealing to this potential market segment.

Furthermore, you argue that you can differentiate your advertisements from competitors by showing women: (a) driving the trucks, and (b) in non-sexualized, empowered ways.

Strengths, Weaknesses and Criticisms of Media Analysis

Strengths

Strengths of media analysis include:

  • It helps to show how media contributes to social and cultural biases which could marginalize some members of society.
  • It helps us reflect on power relationships.
  • It can create a case to media departments about how best to advertise a product in the marketplace.

Weaknesses and Criticisms

Weaknesses of media analysis include:

  • It is often accused of having very little real-life relevance. A descriptive overview of media’s biases may be a good academic exercise, but it’s not the most desirable skill to have for future employers.
  • There is so much media these days that it’s hard to get a snapshot of the whole media landscape. You usually have to zoom-in on small market subsets which are case studies that cannot provide broad generalizations.

References for your Essay

These are my recommended sources, in APA style:

Altheide, D. & Schneider, C. (2013). Qualitative Media Analysis. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Anstead, N., & O’Loughlin, B. (2014). Social media analysis and public opinion: The 2010 UK general election. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20(2), 204-220.

Berger, A. (2005). Media research techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. 

Cashmore, A. (2006). Media Analysis, In: Jupp, V. (ed.) The SAGE dictionary of social research methods. London: SAGE Publications.

Fairclough, N. (2010). Critical analysis of media discourse. In: Thornham, S., Bassett, C., & Marris, P. (Eds.). Media studies: A reader. New York: NYU Press.

Kress, G. R., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. Sydney: Psychology Press.

Lasswell, H., Lerner, D., & Pool, I. de Sola. (1952). The comparative study of symbol: an introduction. Stanford University Press, Hoover Institute and Library on War, Revolution and Peace. 

Macnamara, J. (2005). Media content analysis: Its uses, benefits and Best Practice Methodology. Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, 6(1), 1– 34.

Neuman, W. (1997). Social research methods: qualitative and quantitative approaches. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon. 

Stochetti, M. & Kukkonon, K. (2011). Critical Media Analysis: An Introduction for Media Professionals. Frankfurt: Peter Yang.

Weber, R. (1990). Basic content analysis (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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