Content analysis: Introduction

Content analysis is a technique for systematically describing written, spoken or visual communication. It provides a quantitative (numerical) description. Many content analyses involve media - print (newspapers, magazines), television, video, movies, the Internet. Any medium that can be recorded and reviewed is appropriate. Content analysis is also used to analyze new material recorded by the researchers, and to classify open-ended responses to interview or survey questions.

Quantification allows us to characterize the material in a way that is potentially reliable and valid. The information is broken down into categories and then summarized. Media has both format and content. Format refers to the form or structure of the information. Is is pictorial or verbal? What shape does it take? Content refers to the meaning of the information. Both format and content can be quantified.

For example, a content analysis of newspapers could include

  • number of color vs. black-and-white photos
  • placement of news stories (front page vs. inside)
  • amount of space devoted to advertising
  • topics of news stories (e.g., local vs. international)
  • emotional tone of reporting
  • political orientation of columnists

Content analysis has been applied to the following, and other possibilities exist:

Verbal print media - newspaper, magazines, books, plays
Visual media - videos, television, film
Visual print media - drawings, cartoons, other illustrations
Artistic productions - painting, sculpture, music
Personal documents - autobiographies, letters, and diaries
Open-ended questionnaire or interview responses

Tracing trends over time and space

Drawings can be used to explore child development.

Format questions would address color, detail, use of space on the page, the more physical aspects of the material.

Content would pertain to the interpretation of the figures, who is shown (e.g., # of parents, siblings, others), what they mean to the child.

More ....  

Analyzing narrative

Any recorded written, spoken, sung, or otherwise recorded narrative (words) can be content analyzed -- song lyrics, recorded dialogue, television commercials, etc.

Judges were able to identify global themes in TV commercials aimed at children. The content was sorted into 7 themes: achievement, conflict, dependence, enablement, mood alteration, trickery, and violence. Here are some examples

Theme Operational definition of category



  1. one party attempting to fool another out of the product
  2. costumes, camouflage, misrepresentations, or manipulative communications were involved

Mood alteration

  1. consumption or reference to the product resulted in the actor's experiencing a pleasurable or intense physical or psychological reaction such as smoke from the ears, levitating, or stars in the eye.
  2. relief of stress and negative mood states also were counted as mood alteration



Pattern of initial doubt followed by success
A boy is too timid to ask a rider for a close look at his show horse.  But having been encouraged by animate characters (Snap, Crackel, and Pop), the boy reflects that "if Rice Krispies can can I.  Hey, Mister, can I see your horse?" He is rewarded with a ride.

Self-test #1

Research-generated data

Researchers may set up research projects to generate new data, or ask participants to provide content to be analyzed.

Emotionality reduces the efficiency of commmunication. Psychologist Deanna Barch of Washington University based this conclusion on a content analysis of participant's responses to ten open-ended questions such as "Tell me about a recent trip you took in a car" along with questions asking them to recall particular emotional experiences. Emotionality was assessed by measuring heart rate and skin conductance. The verbal accounts were rated for reference errors - "misspeaking" - not saying what you mean. When participants discussed negative topics such as job loss or a death in the family, their skin conductance and heart rate increased, and they made significantly more reference errors in their speech.(1)

A scientific study of dreams? Yes. Researchers at UC Santa Cruz have been doing content analyses of dream accounts for many years and are developing a neurocognitive theory of dreaming. For more information on their approach (not required), see

More examples and ideas....

On to Doing a content analysis


Stambor, Z. (2005, June). Emotionally loaded topic may impair speech. Monitor on Psychology, 36, 15.