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Media research and boring questions: What do global surveys miss?

Sonia Jawaid Shaikh's picture

In the past decade, much effort and attention has gone into media (including traditional types and digital technologies) research because the media are considered pivotal for social change and fundamental to human rights. Although several approaches exist to conduct media research; many researchers and policy makers use findings from publicly available survey data to conduct analyses, evaluate and make predictions. This data is often generated by large national or global (often wave-based) surveys that use random sampling techniques to interview respondents.

Given that the media and its effects generate so much interest, you would think that interesting and thought-provoking questions would be asked on media usage and user perceptions in these surveys. Surprisingly, that is not the case. Questions that tap into versatility, scope, ideas, usage and media perceptions in global survey research are quite uncommon. Interestingly, many surveys actually only incorporate items regarding media sources and usage frequencies alone.

Consider two primary sources of global attitudes and values research involving several countries: World Values Survey (WVS) and Afrobarometer.

Here are the questions on the media posed to survey participants in WVS (wave 6, June 2012):

  • People learn what is going on in this country and the world from various sources. For each of the following sources, please indicate whether you use it to obtain information daily, weekly, monthly, less than monthly or never. [Options: Daily Newspaper, Printed Magazines, TV News, Radio News, Mobile Phone, Email, Internet, Talk with Friends or Colleagues]
  • How often, if ever, do you use a personal computer?
  • I am going to name a number of organizations. For each one, could you tell me how much confidence you have in them: is it a great deal of confidence, quite a lot of confidence, not very much confidence or none at all? [Amongst a list of options, two media relevant are: TV and the Press]
Now consider Afrobarometer questionnaire administered in Algeria (2015. Note that country surveys are often customized):
  • Does the news media abuse its freedoms by printing or saying things it knows are not true?
  • Which of these things do you personally own? [Options include: Radio, Television, Motorcycle or Motor Vehicle, Mobile Phone]
  • How often do you use? [Options: Mobile Phone, the Internet]
Items from Afrobarometer survey in Ghana (2014):
  • How often do you get news from the following sources? [Options: Radio, Television, Internet, Newspapers, Social Media such as Facebook & Twitter]
  • In this country, how effective is the news media in revealing government mistakes and corruption? [Options: Very Effective to Don’t Know]
  • Statement 1: The media should have the right to publish any views and ideas without government control vs. Statement 2: The government should have the right to prevent the media from publishing things that it considers harmful to society. [Options: Agree very strong with statement 1 OR 2, Agree strongly, Agree with Neither, Don’t Know]
The above items reflect how little attention is paid to framing questions on a subject that is frequently discussed in political and policy arenas. Using typical questions on mere source and frequency of media usage is not enough to understand how users relate with the media and whether they consider it as a powerful tool that can change their actions.  This is especially problematic if we consider the media to be important tools of political change and/or creating mass protests (such as the Arab Spring).

Although one may argue that surveys such as WVS are only concerned with attitudes and values and, therefore, are limited in their approach; it that does not follow that questionnaires shy from value items pertaining to media and information technologies. Many researchers and policy makers will use the available data on media frequency and usage with other variables [such as political participation] in regression-based models which may have serious problems; such as flawed causal models and gross generalizations. Failure to ask curious questions in global research is definitely a missed opportunity.

Survey research can increase its scope by incorporating elements that ask:
  1. Preference amongst media/technology use: Questions that not only seek which media are used but rather on which criteria. For instance: ease, effectiveness, cost and etc.
  2. Perceived media potential: Inquiry into what users consider as important tools in their lives and if any of them have potential to make changes. This can solve oft-confused problem of equating media expansion in a country (for example mobile phone subscriptions) with the knowledge/potential users have of technology can be used maximally.
  3. Association of values: Investigation into any personal and social values tied to media usage.
The presence of versatile questions can have several benefits: a) they are useful in creating priors from which better posterior knowledge can be created over time b) they can potentially offer alternative data analysis possibilities as c) they can reduce hindsight bias and post-hoc explanations in events of major social/political changes and most importantly d) they can provide excellent points of analyses, policy and intervention-based strategies when fused with values and economic research.

Some surveys are exceptional when it comes to finding innovative ways to understand users and media. Next blog post will look into some of them.
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Submitted by Larry Xu on

Really good points! It is difficult to say what the global surveys are exactly for, given how formalistic the "boring questions" are framed and delivered. The pollsters may have a vague mental depiction of what the responses should look like, and the questions are merely ways to elicit such responses to make up the stories. "Global" is always a risky work, and only those who have lived in the areas for a period of time may be able to tease out critical factors that the surveys should ask.

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