The Microscope and the Moving Target: The Challenge of Applying Content Analysis to the World Wide Web

By McMillan, Sally J. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Microscope and the Moving Target: The Challenge of Applying Content Analysis to the World Wide Web


McMillan, Sally J., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Analysis of nineteen studies that apply content analysis techniques to the World Wide Web found that this stable research technique can be applied to a dynamic environment. However, the rapid growth and change of Web-based content present some unique challenges. Nevertheless, researchers are now using content analysis to examine themes such as diversity, commercialization, and utilization of technology on the World Wide Web. Suggestions are offered for how researchers can apply content analysis to the Web with primary focus on formulating research questions/hypotheses, sampling, data collection and coding, training/ reliability of coders, and analyzing/interpreting data.

Content analysis has been used for decades as a microscope that brings communication messages into focus. The World Wide Web has grown rapidly since the technology that made it possible was introduced in 1991 and the first Web browsers became available in 1993.1 The Commerce Department estimates that one billion users may be online by 2005, and the growth in users has mirrored growth in content.2 More than 320 million home pages can be accessed on the Web3 and some Web sites are updated almost constantly.4 This growth and change makes the Web a moving target for communication research. Can the microscope of content analysis be applied to this moving target?

The purpose of this article is to examine ways that researchers have begun to apply content analysis to the World Wide Web. How are they adapting the principles of content analysis to this evolving form of computermediated communication? What are the unique challenges of content analysis in this environment? This review of pioneering work in Web-based content analysis may provide researchers with insights into ways to adapt a stable research technique to a dynamic communication environment.

Literature Review

Krippendorff found empirical inquiry into communication content dates at least to the late 1600s when newspapers were examined by the Church because of its concern of the spread of nonreligious matters. The first well-documented case of quantitative analysis of content occurred in eighteenth-century Sweden. That study also involved conflict between the church and scholars. With the advent of popular newspaper publishing at the turn of the twentieth century, content analysis came to be more widely used.5 It was with the work of Berelson and Lazarsfeld6 in the 1940s and Berelson7 in the 1950s that content analysis came to be a widely recognized research tool that was used in a variety of research disciplines.

Berelson's definition of content analysis as "a research technique for the objective, systematic and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication"8 underlies much content analysis work. Budd, Thorp, and Donohew built on Berelson's definition defining content analysis as "a systematic technique for analyzing message content and message handling."9 Krippendorff defined content analysis as "a research technique for making replicable and valid inferences from data to their context."10

Krippendorff identified four primary advantages of content analysis: it is unobtrusive, it accepts unstructured material, it is context sensitive and thereby able to process symbolic forms, and it can cope with large volumes of data.11 All of these advantages seem to apply equally to the Web as to media such as newspapers and television. The capability of coping with large volumes of data is a distinct advantage in terms of Web analysis. Holsti identified three primary purposes for content analysis: to describe the characteristics of communication, to make inferences as to the antecedents of communication, and to make inferences as to the effects of communication.12 Both descriptive and inferential research focused on Web-based content could add value to our understanding of this evolving communication environment.

How-to guides for conducting content analysis suggest five primary steps that are involved in the process of conducting content analysis research. …

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The Microscope and the Moving Target: The Challenge of Applying Content Analysis to the World Wide Web
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