Researching the media-politics relationship

This section features advice about how to plan a research project about some aspect of the media-politics relationship. It can also form the basis for at least part of the report of that work - be it an undergraduate research paper, masters thesis, doctoral dissertation, conference paper or article - by helping you communicate the thinking behind your various research decisions.

Getting started >>
Research interest and material >>
Research problem and aim >>
The academic debate >>
Analytical approach (material and method) >>
Feasibility of the study, expected outcomes and significance of the research >>
Planning your writing >>


Getting started

Begin your project creatively. Be guided by your interests and the trajectory that suits your research personality. It might be top-down. A concept, theory or academic debate might have caught your interest (agenda-setting or framing, perhaps), and you would like to work more with the literature pertaining to it, for example by following up on the phenomenon in question in a setting not dealt with in the secondary sources (applying it to attempts by the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides to control the narrative over Scottish independence, for example). In other words, it might suit you best to start with ‘theory’ and work down to an empirical application. Your research personality might be better suited to a bottom-up a pproach instead. For example, a particular case (Russia Today’s coverage of the Ukrainian crisis) or text (the Uganda Media Law, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Russell Brand’s political manifesto) might have caught your interest, and you would like to analyse it and work upwards, to relate it to a theory or scholarly debate (like cultural regulation or infotainment or celebrity politics).


It is worthwhile giving yourself some time to explore different possibilities, and to avoid closing off particular avenues of inquiry too soon. It is usually a good idea to start by identifying your general interest and then begin the scholarly task of putting words around it - words that get closer and closer to the vocabularly of the scholarly discussion and the discourse of methods textbooks. Proceed step-by-step, getting a dialogue going between the secondary sources (theory and previous research) and primary sources (empirical material). At each step of your research, let questions propel the inquiry forward. This will make your work more transparent, and your written reports more interesting to read.


Research interest and material

The first step involves formulating answers to some preliminary questions. What is your research interest? What sort of empirical material could you use to pursue this interest? Where can you get hold of it? This work generally involves brainstorming.


A common question is how much material to analyse. Some authors, like Chouliaraki (2006) have written influential books based on a few news reports and in one of the essays in Mythologies, Barthes (1957/1993) got quite far by analysing the front cover of one news magazine. On the other hand, if your ambition is to say something about ‘global media coverage of the Syrian conflict’, then you will have validity problems if your sample includes a few reports published on the websites of one or two news channels. That said, the most common tendency is to be overly ambitious. To do justice to the mag nitude of media reports about politics we encounter on a daily basis, large samples are needed, but if you feel compelled to use a methodology such as critical discourse or narrative analysis, you will run into difficulties - unless you have a decade for your project and someone prepared to read a 300-page report of your research. It is possible to analyse thousands of news reports if a simple methodology is employed to code superficial features, and you are clear about what conclusions can be drawn from such indicators. The right amount of material for your project depends on what you intend to do with it.


Research problem and aim

Formulating the aim or putting the research problem into words is often the hardest part of the project, with the exact wording tweaked as the research progresses. Your ideas are liable to change the more you read, and especially as you dig into your empirical material. As your hands get dirtier, make sure the aim you have formulated doesn’t stay pristine, untouched in the proposal. Go back to it often, pick it up and turn it over until it is familiar and well worn. Keep interrogating it.


A well-formulated aim contains the answer to two questions:


1. What are you going to do in your study?


2. Why are you going to do it?


These two seemingly innocent questions can actually be quite difficult to answer, but the success of your project hangs on thinking about them and trying to formulate a clear response. The answer to the question ‘what?’ relates to the empirical material and analytical approach you will be using. The answer to the question ‘why’ relates your study to the broader academic discussion, or secondary sources (in some cases ‘theory’). To ensure that you produce an analysis, and not just description, there should be a puzzle involved - a question you don’t know the answer to. What is it that we don’t know the answer to at the outset? What knot are you trying to unravel by doing this study?


You should ask yourself what the focus of your research really is. When first answering this question, you might be tempted to give quite a vague answer. For example, you might say that you will be using Euronews and that your project is about the media and European identity. But what does that mean? Will this be a study of Euronews, or is your project about the notion of European identity as such, or about the media’s role in cultivating identity (in which case, why Euronews and not the Eurovision Song Contest)? Is it a normative argument about how things should be (in which case your study should rest heavily on theoretical and perhaps even philosophical sources), are you aiming to map out the way things are (by analysing Euronews reports or doing a reception study, if you can find people who watch it), or are you hoping to do a study of the reasons behind this state of affairs (by interviewing journalists or analysing policy documents)? Your project might involve all these things, but in that case, you should establish a hierarchy of importance. One might just be the hook or point of entry to your inquiry; another could serve as a reflective note to finish your paper with; while another is what you actually spend your project finding out about.


When it comes to answering the ‘why’ question, it can be useful to bear in mind that explaining why your study is interesting is usually, although not always, a matter of situating the project in the context of the relevant scholarly discussion (which tends to get referred to, sometimes misleadingly, as Theory). The connection to an academic debate can be more or less intense. For example, sometimes the research question is generated by inconsistencies or gaps within a well-researched area. One example of that would be if previous research in a certain area leads us to expect that if ‘y’ follows pattern ‘x’, but we’ve found that it actually follows pattern ‘z’ instead: how can that be or what does this imply? I f previous research implies that we should expect national broadcasters to follow a certain pattern in their reaction to extra-parliamentary protest, how can we understand the apparently completely different reaction of this particular French or Russian or Indian television news programme to that particular lobby or social movement? By answering such questions, a ‘why’ starts to happen, and from this the sharp bit in the research problem.


Another type of ‘why’ arises when previous research can be applied on fresh material. This could be material that for some reason has remained unexplored (radio seen in light of mediatization theory, or the visual strategies of the suffragettes), or material that has resulted from new developments (does the time-honoured theory of agenda-setting work when the medium is Twitter rather than newspapers?) or an un foreseen event or unprecedented phenomenon (like WikiLeaks or the Snowden disclosures). Sometimes you can create a niche of ‘unexplored material’ by placing empirical mater ial (a film like World War Z or Noah perhaps) that normally belongs in one sub-disciplinary discussion (say, cinema studies) in what might seem like a completely different academic discussion (say, political science or security studies).


The academic debate

It is important to be able to work with secondary sources, and not just show that you are able to place your project in the context of an academic debate. This need not mean getting bogged down with sophisticated and complex ‘Theory’ - unless you want to, of course. What does ‘working with’ secondary sources entail, then? Among other things, it means:



  • critically discussing the works you have chosen, both in terms of their own merits and in terms of their usefulness to your study;

  • relating the different texts you have chosen to each other, synthesising them;

  • approaching them with questions, just as you would your empirical material. What are you looking for? When you have answered one particular question (e.g. ‘how do Author X and Author Y understand the relation between media and power in general?’) you need to pose another (‘what has Researcher Z found out about the relationship between power and Spanish media?’) and then another (‘how could those Spanish findings be related to the situation in the country I am studying?’);

  • incorporating your discussion in the expression of your research problem/aim, applying it to your own empirical investigation, and reflecting on what you have learned when you get to the end of your project and are reflecting on it in the conclusion of your paper or thesis. In what follows, secondary sources related to the problematics presented in each chapter of the book are listed, together with suggestions for primary sources that can be analysed to explore these issues. New research is being published every month, and can be accessed in eletronic form through scholarly journals subscribed to by most university libraries.


Analytical approach (material and method)

Once your research focus has become clearer, you should start thinking in specific terms about how exactly you are going to go about answering the questions you have posed yourself. This means honing in on what material you will be using, and what you will be doing with it. ‘I will apply discourse analysis to French and British reporting of the Syrian conflict’ is not a helpful answer to the question of what your analytical approach will be. For your sake, and that of your reader(s), you should be clear about what material you are using, and why you have chosen it - in general, and in particular. The answer to the ‘in general’ question might concern why you chose to compare two countries (for example, because France and the UK are very similar in important ways, except for the issue you are invest igating, or because they are different in important ways, for example in that they represent different Hallin-and-Mancini models), and you are using, for example, newspaper editorials or a blog to explore how that issue is problematised by an important actor (i.e. a leading newspaper or minister or activist) in that country. Telling your reader(s) why you have chosen this material in particular might involve explaining why you are using only editorials instead of news articles, and why you are looking at the specific dates you have chosen for analysis.


Next: you have to be clear about what are you going to do with the material. What criteria are you applying to it, what questions are you asking of it? The criteria or questions have to be specific enough in themselves, or well-enough explained, for the reader to be able to understand how you will know the answer to your criterion or question when you see it. For example, how will you be able to identify ‘expressions of national identity’ in your primary sources? What features does war reporting in a given medium have to display for you to be able to conclude that it is ‘infotainment’, in the way Thussu uses the term? What qualities does a given selection of news texts have to have for you to be able to distinguish ‘hard’ from ‘soft’ or to conclude that ‘dumbing down’ is going on?


It is important to make sure there is a clear connection between research problem (or aim) and method (or analytical approach). Is the material appropriate (does it make sense to look at editorials if you are trying to study spin-doctoring)? Is the general method appropriate (will a discourse analysis of a radio programme be able to tell you anything about the journalist’s intentions)?


Feasibility of the study, expected outcomes and significance of the research

When planning your research, you should be clear (to yourself and your prospective reader) about problems yet to be solved. (Have interview respondents been for your study of journalistic role perceptions or audience reception been found, and are they willing to participate in the study? Does the sample of news reports make sense?). If you are presenting a text at the planning stage - at a research seminar, or with your tutor - be open about where feedback and tips are needed. In your final paper or thesis, however, include a confident passage about the feasibility of your study, designed to persuade the critical reader that the plan is good and the study worthwhile. A good way of doing this is by in cluding the results of a pilot study or preliminary survey of the material. While your approach should reflect scholarly curiosity and the ambition of solving a puzzle, a plan by definition involves having an idea about where the project is headed. By including a short section that outlines what you have cause to expect the research to unearth, it makes it easier to assess the value of the study, in both empirical (expected outcomes) and theoretical (signifiance of the research) terms.


Planning your writing

Doing research is all about writing - communicating to yourself, and to people who aren’t familiar with your material, about what you are doing, and why, at every step of the work. Some great composers have put together symphonies, and orchestrated them, all in their heads, before putting the notes down on paper. Some scholars can do that too. Most can’t. It is thus generally a very good idea to write the entire time your research project unfolds.


Put up signposts and stickies for yourself and the reader throughout the text. Why are we discussing this particular author or work or concept? And having done that, why are we now thinking about this method or that material? And having generated lots of data, what was it we were looking for again, and do those results answer the question posed at the outset? How did we end up here, and where are we? Keep tight hold of the red thread, and plan your paper or thesis in such a way that you have enough space to share the evidence the reader needs to follow your train of thought, and to make the argument you want to convince them is the correct interpretation. Like globalization, writing is about managing time and space.