A Research Process for Mass Communication Studies

For undergraduate research students
Dr. Anthony Curtis
Department of Mass Communication
University of North Carolina at Pembroke

This very brief how-to document sets forth a set of steps in an academic research project from the original research question to a final written research report.

Map out your research strategy

To end up with professional results, first take some time to map out your research strategy.

  • The first step is to formulate a research question.
  • There is a relationship between the research question, the hypotheses, the specific aims of a research project, and the long-term goals of the project.

    ✔ The research question:

  • The research question is the single most important part of the scientific method.
  • Every part of a research project is done to answer the research question.
  • Sometimes the question is written as a declarative statement and sometimes as a question.
  • The research question also is known as the problem or problem statement.
  • A research question is a statement that identifies the phenomenon to be studied.
  • For example, "Does anyone really watch the Weather Channel?"
  • To develop a strong research question from your ideas, you should ask yourself these things...
  • Do I know the field and its literature well?
  • What are the important research questions in my field?
  • What areas need further exploration?
  • Could my study fill a gap? Lead to greater understanding?
  • Has a great deal of research already been conducted in this topic area?
  • Has this study been done before? If so, is there room for improvement?
  • Is the timing right for this question to be answered? Is it a hot topic, or is it becoming obsolete?
  • Most importantly, will my study have a significant impact on the field?
  • Would funding sources be interested?
  • If you are proposing a service project, is the target community interested?

    So what?A strong research idea should pass the "so what" test.

  • What is the potential impact of the research you are proposing.
  • What would be the benefit of answering your research question?
  • Who will it help and how?
  • If you cannot make a definitive statement about the purpose of your research, it is unlikely to be funded.

    Narrow the focus

  • The focus of your research should be narrow, not broad.
  • For example, "Does television lead to violence in society?" is too broad a question to answer.
  • It would be better to begin with a more narrowly focused question such as "What is the relationship between specific early childhood television viewing and violent behaviors?"

    Ask yourself these questions

  • Is the topic too broad?
  • Can the problem really be investigated?
  • Can the data be analyzed?
  • Is the problem significant?
  • Can the results of the study be generalized?
  • What costs and time are involved in the analysis?
  • Is the planned approach appropriate to the project?
  • Is there any potential harm to the subjects?

    Types of research questions

    There are three basic types of research questions that research projects can address:

  • Descriptive – when a study is designed primarily to describe what is going on or what exists.
  • Public opinion polls that seek only to describe the proportion of people who hold various opinions are primarily descriptive in nature.
  • For instance, if we find the percent of the population that would vote for a Democratic or a Republican in the next presidential election, we would simply be describing something.
  • Relational – when a study is designed to look at the relationships between two or more variables.
  • A public opinion poll that compares the proportion of males and females who say they would vote for a Democratic or a Republican candidate in the next presidential election is essentially studying the relationship between gender and voting preference.
  • Causal – when a study is designed to determine whether one or more variables cause or affect one or more outcome variables.
  • If we did a public opinion poll to determine whether a recent political advertising campaign changed voter preferences, we would be studying whether the campaign caused the proportion of voters who would vote Democratic or Republican to change.

    ✔ The literature review

  • The review of literature is preliminary research into your subject to see what work scholars already have completed about the topic.
  • It looks for relevant literature, or writings, in books, scholarly journals, magazines and online databases, as well as Internet sites that discuss the topic you want to investigate.

    A literature review asks...

  • What type of research has been done in the area?
  • What has been found in previous studies?
  • What suggestions do other researchers make for further study?
  • What has not been investigated?
  • How can the proposed study add to our knowledge of the area?
  • What research methods have been used in previous studies?

    ✔ The hypothesis:

  • After reviewing the literature, you should be able to predict what you think will happen in your experiment.
  • That educated guess concerning the outcome is your hypothesis style='font-size: 12.0pt'>.
  • You must state your hypothesis in a way that you can measure it readily.
  • A well-thought-out and focused research question leads directly into the hypothesis.
  • Hypotheses are specific predictions about the nature and direction of the relationship between two variables.
  • For example, "Those students who utilize an online tutorial will have higher test scores than those who do not."
  • What predictions would you make about the phenomenon you are examining?

    Strong hypotheses...

  • Give insight into a research question
  • Are testable and measurable by the proposed research
  • Spring logically from your experience

    Make sure you...

  • Provide a rationale for your hypotheses – where did it come from and why is it strong?
  • Provide alternative possibilities for the hypothesis that could be tested – why did you choose the one you did over others?

    ✔ The objectives

  • If you have a good hypothesis, it will lead into your specific aims
  • Specific aims are the steps you are going to take to test your hypotheses and what you want to accomplish through this research.

    Make sure:

  • Your objectives are measurable and highly focused
  • Each hypothesis is matched with a specific aim
  • The aims are feasible, given the time and money you can expend on the research project

    ✔ The goals

    Long-term goals:

  • Why are you doing this research?
  • What are the long-term implications?
  • What will happen afterward?
  • What other avenues are open to explore?
  • What is the ultimate application or use of the research?
  • The goals should be a logical extension of the research question, hypotheses and specific aims.
  • How does the research you are proposing relate to your personal professional career goals?

    ✔ The methodology

  • The research method is the way in which information is found or something is done.
  • The methodology includes the methods, procedures and techniques used to collect and analyze information.
  • The research methods used may be quantitative and/or qualitative.

    Quantitative research

  • Quantitative research is systematic scientific investigation in which numbers are used to define, measure and report on the relationships among characteristics, concepts or things.
  • It is concerned with counting, tabulation or numeric relevance of various kinds of behavior.
  • It examines phenomenon through the numerical representation of observations and statistical analysis.
  • Quantitative research primarily is concerned with "Why?"

    Qualitative research

  • Qualitative research also is primarily concerned with "Why?"
  • It is concerned with understanding the processes, which underlie various behavioral patterns.
  • It involves detailed, verbal descriptions of characteristics, cases, and settings.
  • Qualitative typically uses observation, interviewing, and document review to collect data.
  • Qualitative research is a way to study people or systems by interacting with and observing the subjects regularly.
  • Qualitative research derives data from observation, interviews, or verbal interactions and focuses on the meanings and interpretations of the participants.
  • Qualitative is a research method that measures information based on opinions and values as opposed to statistical data.
  • There are a variety of methods that are common within qualitative measurement.
  • In fact, the variety of qualitative methods is largely limited by the imagination of the researcher.

    Here are some common qualitative methods:

  • Participant observation
  • Direct observation
  • Unstructured interviewing
  • Case studies

    Participant Observation...

  • One of the most common methods for qualitative data collection also can be one of the most demanding.
  • It requires that the researcher become a participant in the culture or context being observed.
  • The literature on participant observation discusses how to enter the context, the role of the researcher as a participant, the collection and storage of field notes, and the analysis of field data.
  • Participant observation sometimes requires months or years of intensive work because the researcher needs to become accepted as a natural part of the culture in order to assure that the observations are of the natural phenomenon.

    Direct Observation...

  • Direct observation is distinguished from participant observation in a number of ways.
  • First, a direct observer doesn't typically try to become a participant in the context. However, the direct observer does strive to be as unobtrusive as possible so as not to bias the observations.
  • Second, direct observation suggests a more detached perspective. The researcher is watching rather than taking part. Consequently, technology can be a useful part of direct observation. For instance, one can videotape the phenomenon or observe from behind one-way mirrors.
  • Third, direct observation tends to be more focused than participant observation. The researcher is observing certain sampled situations or people rather than trying to become immersed in the entire context.
  • Finally, direct observation tends not to take as long as participant observation. For instance, one might observe child-mother interactions under specific circumstances in a laboratory setting from behind a one-way mirror, looking especially for the nonverbal cues being used.

    Unstructured Interviewing...

  • Unstructured interviewing involves direct interaction between the researcher and a respondent or group.

    It differs from traditional structured interviewing in important ways:

  • First, although the researcher may have some initial guiding questions or core concepts to ask about, there is no formal structured instrument or protocol.
  • Second, the interviewer is free to move the conversation in any direction of interest that may come up.
  • Consequently, unstructured interviewing is particularly useful for exploring a topic broadly.
  • However, there is a price for this lack of structure. Because each interview tends to be unique with no predetermined set of questions asked of all respondents, it is usually more difficult to analyze unstructured interview data, especially when synthesizing across respondents.

    Case Studies...

  • A case study is an intensive study of a specific individual or specific context.
  • For instance, Freud developed case studies of several individuals as the basis for the theory of psychoanalysis and Piaget did case studies of children to study developmental phases.
  • There is no single way to conduct a case study, and a combination of methods, such as unstructured interviewing or direct observation, could be used.

    ✔ Analyzing Research Results

    Always start with your research goals...

  • When analyzing data from questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, library research or whatever, always start by reviewing your research goals – the reason you undertook the research project in the first place.
  • This will help you organize your data and focus your analysis.

    For example:

  • If you wanted to improve a program by identifying its strengths and weaknesses, you could organize your data into program strengths, weaknesses and suggestions to improve the program.
  • If you wanted to understand how something works, you could arrange data in the chronological order.
  • If you were conducting a performance improvement study, you could categorize data according to each measure associated with each overall performance result.

    Basic analysis of quantitative information – such as ratings, rankings, number of yes's and no's, etc.

    1. Make copies of your data and store the master copy away.

    2. Use the copy for making edits, cutting and pasting, etc.

    3. Tabulate the information. That is, add up the number of ratings, rankings, yes's, no's for each question.

    4. For ratings and rankings, consider computing a mean, or average, for each question. For example, you might say, "For question #1, the average ranking was 2.4." This is more meaningful than indicating, for instance, how many respondents ranked 1, 2, or 3.

    5. Consider conveying the range of answers. For example, 20 people ranked 1, 30 ranked 2, and 20 ranked 3.

    Basic analysis of qualitative information – such as respondents' verbal answers in interviews, written commentary on questionnaires, focus groups, etc.

    1. Read through all the data.

    2. Organize comments into similar categories. For example, concerns, suggestions, strengths, weaknesses, similar experiences, program inputs, recommendations, outputs, outcome indicators, etc.

    3. Label the categories or themes, e.g., concerns, suggestions, etc.

    4. Attempt to identify patterns, associations and relationships in the themes. For instance, patterns such as all people who attended programs in the evening had similar concerns, or most people came from the same geographic area, or most people were in the same salary range, etc.

    5. Keep all commentary for several years after completion in case you need it for future reference.

    Interpreting the information you have found...

    1. Attempt to put the information in perspective.

    That is, compare your results to what you expected, your original goals, any indications or measures of accomplishing outcomes or results; descriptions of the experiences, strengths, weaknesses, etc.

    2. Consider recommendations to improve a program, product or service. Draw conclusions about program operations or meeting goals, etc.

    3. Record your conclusions and recommendations. List your interpretations to justify your conclusions or recommendations.

    ✔ Writing The Research Report

    How to organize and write your research report

  • Title Page
  • Table of Contents
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Statement of the Problem
  • Review of Related Literature
  • Hypothesis
  • Definitions
  • Methods
  • Analysis
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • Recommendation for Further Investigation
  • References

    Title

  • The title should summarize the main idea of the paper in no more than 12 words.
  • A good title when reporting the results of an experiment might be The Effects of Independent Variable on Dependent Variable.
  • Another choice might be to use the main finding as the title. For example, Alcohol Impairs Passive Avoidance Learning in Television Viewers.
  • For other types of research, include the variables of interest in the title. Be careful not to imply causality.
  • When typing the title, center it on the page and capitalize only the first letter of important words.
  • On the next double-spaced line: your name
  • On the next double-spaced line: "University of North Carolina at Pembroke"
  • On the next double-spaced line: "In partial fulfillment of the requirements for MCM-436, Dr. Anthony Curtis, June 27, 2006"

    Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Statement of the Problem
  • Review of Related Literature
  • Hypothesis
  • Definitions
  • Methods
  • Analysis
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • Recommendation for Further Investigation
  • References

    Abstract

  • This is a one-page concise overview of findings and recommendations.
  • The purpose of this section is to provide a brief and comprehensive summary of the study. It is very important because it is all that many people will read. It should include a brief description of the problem being investigated, the methods used, the results, and their implications.
  • The abstract page is the third page, but numbered page 2.
  • When typing, center the word Abstract on the page, then begin typing on the very next double-spaced line. Do not insert any extra blank lines here.
  • Type this section as a single double-spaced paragraph in block format. Do not indent.
  • The abstract must be accurate.
  • Do not include information here that is not in the body of the manuscript.
  • Be specific. Begin this section with the most important information and limit it to the four or five most important concepts, findings, or implications of the study.
  • Write this section last, after all of the other sections are written.
  • Try taking the lead sentences from the various sections of the report and integrating them.
  • The abstract is self-contained.
  • Spell out abbreviations.
  • Make it concise – 120 word maximum.
  • Use digits for all numbers, except at the beginning of a sentence.
  • Avoid citing references in the abstract.
  • Paraphrase rather than quote.
  • Use active rather than passive voice, but without personal pronouns. For example, use "Researchers instructed participants to..." rather than "Participants were given instructions to..."
  • Use past tense for procedures and present tense for results.

    Introduction

  • The introduction is the fourth page, but numbered page 3.
  • The main purpose of this section is to tell the reader why you performed the study.
  • In other words, you inform the reader about the research question and say why it is important, and how it is unique when compared to previous studies.
  • The introduction starts out broad and becomes more and more specific.
  • For example, you might begin by defining relevant terms. Then go on to review the relevant literature.
  • Avoid an exhaustive and historical review.
  • Then go on to make clear the connection between previous research and the present work.
  • You might include the hypothesis and the rationale for them.
  • The final paragraph is a statement which clearly and explicitly states why the study was performed, such as "The purpose of this study was to..." or "The present study was designed to investigate..."
  • Be especially careful not to use a sentence of this type earlier in your introduction.
  • The introduction should be at least four paragraphs: the general introduction, the literature review, the connection of the present study to the literature and the explicit statement of purpose.
  • Start the introduction page by retyping the report title, centered.
  • Then start typing the introduction text on the next double-spaced line using normal 5-space-indented paragraphs. Do not type the word Introduction.

    Statement of the Problem:

  • Do not purposely start a new page for this section.
  • Simply double-space down and center the words Statement of the Problem.
  • Continue typing on the very next double-spaced line.
  • Do not insert any extra blank lines.
  • The purpose of this section is to describe the research question.

    Review of Related Literature:

  • Do not purposely start a new page for this section.
  • Simply double-space down and center the words Review of Related Literature.
  • Continue typing on the very next double-spaced line.
  • Do not insert any extra blank lines.
  • The purpose of this section is to describe the findings of your literature search.

    Hypothesis:

  • Do not purposely start a new page for this section.
  • Simply double-space down and center the words The Hypothesis.
  • Continue typing on the very next double-spaced line.
  • Do not insert any extra blank lines.
  • The purpose of this section is to describe the hypothesis.

    Definitions:

  • Do not purposely start a new page for this section.
  • Simply double-space down and center the word Definitions.
  • Continue typing on the very next double-spaced line.
  • Do not insert any extra blank lines.
  • The purpose of this section is to list relevant definitions of key words.

    Methods

  • Do not purposely start a new page for this section.
  • Simply double-space down and center the word Methods.
  • Continue typing on the very next double-spaced line.
  • Do not insert any extra blank lines.
  • The purpose of this section is to describe your research methods.

    Analysis:

  • Do not purposely start a new page for this section.
  • Simply double-space down and center the words Analysis of Data.
  • Continue typing on the very next double-spaced line.
  • Do not insert any extra blank lines.
  • The purpose of this section is to describe your data analysis.

    Discussion:

  • Do not purposely start a new page for this section.
  • Simply double-space down and center the word Discussion.
  • Continue typing on the very next double-spaced line.
  • Do not insert any extra blank lines.
  • The purpose of this section is to discuss your findings.

    Conclusions:

  • Do not purposely start a new page for this section.
  • Simply double-space down and center the word Conclusions.
  • Continue typing on the very next double-spaced line.
  • Do not insert any extra blank lines.
  • The purpose of this section is to discuss your conclusions.

    Recommendation for Further Investigation:

  • Do not purposely start a new page for this section.
  • Simply double-space down and center the words Recommendation for Further Investigation.
  • Continue typing on the very next double-spaced line.
  • Do not insert any extra blank lines.
  • The purpose of this section is to discuss the implications of your finding and what other researchers might investigate in the future.

    References

  • The internal citations in the research report must be in either APA or MLA style. APA usually is preferred in social science research.
  • Any citations in the text of the report must be presented in this section and vice versa.
  • If something is not cited in the text, then it should not appear in this section.
  • This is not a bibliography.
  • Start the references list on a new page.
  • Center the word References at the top.
  • Continue typing on the very next double-spaced line.
  • A hanging indent is employed for each reference, that is, the first line is not indented and the rest are five-space indented.
  • In any section of the text, you must provide a citation whenever you say something like "studies have shown" or write any information that is not common knowledge.
  • The reference page tells the reader where they can find the citations.
  • This section is alphabetized by last name of the first author involved in the study.
  • For each author, give the last name followed by a comma and the first and middle initials followed by periods.
  • See an APA or MLA style guide.