Communication Content Analysis
Brendan Watson, Stephen Lacy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0175


Content analysis is a quantitative method that uses human coders to apply a set of valid measurement rules to reduce manifest features of content to numeric data in order to make replicable, generalizable inferences about that content. Because the method is applied to human artifacts, it has generic advantages that apply whether doing quantitative content analysis or qualitative textual or rhetorical analysis. For example, analyzing communication content is an unobtrusive research activity that is unaffected by self-report biases. However, it is critical to differentiate content analysis as a distinct, quantitative, social-scientific method using human coders from other methods of analyzing content: this is done in order to call attention to the method’s unique strengths and weaknesses. A weakness of content analysis is that assigning content to numeric categories loses some of the richness of human communication. A strength of content analysis is that it reduces complex communication phenomenon to numeric data, allowing researchers to study broader phenomenon than would be possible via methods that rely on close reading. Furthermore, probabilistic sampling allows researchers to draw inferences about a given communication phenomenon without observing all cases and processes. Reliability testing also helps ensure that results have greater precision and are replicable. Although content analysis developed out of the US scholarly community building on code breaking during the Second World War, it is now used around the world. However, most of the available texts in non-English languages are translations from texts originally written in English. The following sections provide references that give scholars, both novices and those who are experienced in using content analysis, a strong foundation in the method, especially as it applies to studying media content. The references focus on content analysis applied to theory, units of measurement, sampling, and reliability. They also suggest core texts and journals that are good outlets for content analysis scholarship. Compared to other methods based on measuring implicit attitudes (e.g., survey research), content analysis has been the subject of much less methodological research aimed at improving the method itself. So the following discussion also calls attention to those areas where more empirical research may help advance the method, providing young and experienced scholars alike an opportunity to make their own contributions to the method and improve measurement.

Core Texts

Berelson 1952 is the first quantitative content analysis text, and since then a handful of additional texts have been written for communication scholars. However, it was not until 2004 that a second edition appeared for any of the texts. Almost two decades after Berelson 1952, Holsti 1969 appeared as an alternative. Currently, there are three texts in print, and two of them are in their third edition—Krippendorff 2013; Neuendorf 2017; and Riffe, et al. 2014. Although these texts are stylistically varied, they tend to be consistent (with a few differences) in the recommendations for best practices and the standards they advocate. All of these texts provide an overview of the techniques and processes of content analysis, covering topics such as research design, protocol development, coding schemes, data analysis, as well as issues of validity and reliability. The three texts currently in print have more detail and discuss methodological issues to a greater degree than earlier text. Therefore, texts with more recent publication dates will provide more up-to-date standards on the conducting and reporting of content analysis. Krippendorff and Bock 2009 is a collection of articles, which is the only currently available content analysis reader. Most general communication research texts contain chapters about content analysis as an important data-generation technique. Although these may be worthwhile introductions and summaries of content analysis, scholars conducting a content analysis should read at least one of the more recent texts before conducting a quantitative content analysis.

  • Berelson, Bernard. 1952. Content analysis in communication research. New York: Free Press.

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    The first content analysis text. Much of 21st-century methodology is based on the theoretical foundations in this book. At the time of writing, the method was empirically underexplored to the point that one chapter title, “Technical Problems,” covered the areas of validity, reliability, sampling, and analysis.

  • Holsti, Ole R. 1969. Content analysis for the social sciences and humanities. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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    During the late 1950s and 1960s, content analysis began to be used in fields other than communication. This text aimed to serve scholars in a range of relevant social science and humanities fields by using a variety of examples. The chapters’ titles became the structure for future texts.

  • Krippendorff, Klaus. 2013. Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology. 3d ed. Los Angeles: SAGE.

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    This text contains the most detailed explication of Krippendorff’s alpha, a commonly used reliability coefficient. Alpha was first introduced in the initial edition. In addition, this text is the most mathematical of the texts.

  • Krippendorff, Klaus, and Mary A. Bock, eds. 2009. The content analysis reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    This is a collection of fifty-two published articles that cover the history of the process, discuss methodology, and provide important examples of content analysis studies that cover a number of social science fields, media (textual and visual), and approaches.

  • Neuendorf, Kimberly A. 2017. The content analysis guidebook. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    As with the other two texts currently in print, this one fully covers both the theory and methodology of content analysis and comes with a website and description of additional resources for students and content analysts.

  • Riffe, Daniel, Stephen Lacy, and Frederick G. Fico. 2014. Analyzing media messages: Using quantitative content analysis in research. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

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    This text covers the application of content analysis to a range of media using examples from mediated communication studies. It provides the steps necessary to conduct a content analysis of textual and visual media.

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