Adolescent Judgment of Sexual Content on Television: Implications for Future Content Analysis Research

By Manganello, Jennifer A.; Henderson, Vani R. et al. | The Journal of Sex Research, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview
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Adolescent Judgment of Sexual Content on Television: Implications for Future Content Analysis Research


Manganello, Jennifer A., Henderson, Vani R., Jordan, Amy, Trentacoste, Nicole, Martin, Suzanne, Hennessy, Michael, Fishbein, Martin, The Journal of Sex Research


There is a growing body of research examining the link between depictions of sexual content and themes in mass media and teens' attitudes toward sex and their sexual behavior (Bleakley, Hennessy, Fishbein, & Jordan, 2008; Brown & Newcomer, 1991; Collins et al., 2004; Kunkel, Eyal, Donnerstein, Farrar, Bielly, & Rideout, 2007; Pardun, L'Engle, & Brown, 2005; Strouse & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1987). Given the prevalence of sex and sex-themed messages in the media, and the many hours adolescents spend using media on a daily basis, the role of media as a sexual socializer is particularly important (Kunkel et al., 2007; Ward, 2003). Research investigating the relationship between exposure to sex content in the media and sexual beliefs, attitudes, intentions, or behaviors often relies on the technique of content analysis to describe the media content of interest. However, little is known about whether such studies adequately capture sexual messages as observed by the audience of interest.

Researchers have used both qualitative (i.e., Medley-Rath, 2007) and quantitative (i.e., Kunkel et al., 2007) research methods to analyze sexual content. While qualitative content analysis relies on methods such as discourse and ethnographic analysis (Krippendorff, 2004), quantitative content analysis is more concerned with condensing content into predefined categories for the purpose of counting or identifying specific messages (Altheide, 1996; Rifle, Lacy, & Fico, 1998). When analyzing sexual messages in the mass media using quantitative content analysis methods, researchers must determine what constitutes sex and define it for the research coders. For example, in their coding scheme, Kunkel, Eyal, Finnerty, Biely, & Donnerstein (2005) defined "talk about sex" as conversations involving "discussion of sexual interests and topics with potential partners" and "talk about one's anticipated, or desired future sexual activities" (Kunkel et al., 2005, p. 14). Lampman et al.'s (2002) coding scheme included leering or staring as sexual behavior, as well as the use of sexual names while name-calling. A topic as broad as sexual content may ultimately be defined and coded in multiple ways, and the content categories that researchers develop dictate what information is gleaned from the media and tied to outcomes of interest. Many times, decisions about categories are informed by which theories are applied to the study (Manganello & Fishbein, 2008).

How variables are operationalized form the basis of any quantitative content analysis codebook or protocol, and researchers often try to strike a difficult balance between developing categories to capture the content of interest while ensuring categories can be coded in a reliable manner (Neuendorf, 2002; Rifle et al., 1998). Moreover, researchers often try to develop content categories that are generalizable and reflect judgments that the population of interest would also make. Rifle et al. used the term "social validity" to refer to the social importance and meaning of the content being explored outside of its relevance to the research community.

While operational definitions of sexual media content are important research decisions, so too are the actual coding judgments made by researchers and coders as they employ these operational definitions to analyze media content. A methodological premise of quantitative content analysis is the assumption that the people doing the coding (typically, undergraduate or graduate students or the researchers themselves) are reliable in their coding judgments; it is expected that they view and code content as close to the predefined content categories as possible. Researchers must train coders to objectively review the media content of interest in a consistent manner. It is also assumed that coders using a codebook to analyze media messages will assess the content in a manner similar to any other person given the same media content and training on using the coding scheme.

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