Qualitative Media Analysis: Altheide’s Approach

Today we’ll be diving into Altheide’s approach to qualitative media analysis. This approach is comprehensively postulated in his book: Altheide, D. L. (1996). Qualitative Media Analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. If you plan on doing an Altheide analysis, I HIGHLY recommend you pick it up.

The main premise of the approach is the study of documents or content. Documents are studied to understand culture, they can be conceptualized as the process and the array of objects, symbols, and meanings that make up social reality shared by members of a society. For our purposes, a large part of culture consists of documents. A document can be defined as any symbolic representation that can be recorded or retrieved for analysis.


  • News article
  • Book
  • TV Show
  • Film
  • Magazine
  • Newpaper

Ethnographic Content Analysis

Ethnographic content analysis is oriented to documenting and understanding the communication of meaning, as well as verifying theoretical relationships. A major difference, however, is the reflexive and highly interactive nature of the investigator, concepts, data collection and analysis. Altheide’s method tends to hold almost a dual focus on the ethnographic approach as well as a straight content analysis. Unlike in qualitative content analysis, in which the protocol is the instrument, the investigator is continually central in ethnographic content analysis, although protocols may be used in later phases of the research. As with all ethnographic research, the meaning of a message is assumed to be reflected in various modes of information exchange, format, rhythm, and style.

Process of Qualitative Document Analysis

Problem & Unit of Analysis

  • Select your specific problem to be investigated.
  • Become familiar with the process and context of the information source.
  • Become familiar with several examples of relevant documents, noting particularly the format. Select a unit of analysis.

Constructing a Protocol (p. 25)

  • List several items of categories (variables) to guide data collection a draft a protocol.
  • Test the protocol by collecting data from several documents.
  • Revise the protocol and select several additional cases to further refine the protocol.

Determine Themes and Frames

Overlapping concepts that aim to capture the emphasis and meaning are frame, theme, and discourse. These are related to communication formats which, in the case of the mass media, refer to selection, organization, and presentation of information.

  • Arrive at a sampling rationale and strategy – examples: theoretical, opportunistic, cluster, stratified random (Note that this will usually be theoretical sampling)
  • Theoretical Sampling
  • Stratified Random Sampling

Collecting the Data

  • Collect the Data, using preset codes, if appropriate, and many descriptive examples.

Data Analysis

  • Perform data analysis, including conceptual refinement and data coding (p. 41).

Finally, compare and contrast “extremes” and “key differences” within each category or item. Next, combine brief summaries with an example of the typical case as well as the extremes. Then integrate the findings with your interpretation and key concepts.

The most important thing to note about the Altheide method is that it is incredibly through, some might argue that is is too through, but either way the time and amount of data collected is staggering. This article is meant to serve a a very brief overview of his method and to give you and to give you an idea of his rigorous approach to the analysis of documents should you be so inclined to undertake this method. One major advantage of using this method is that while it is more time consuming from a data gathering standpoint, the entire method has been validated and stored in his book in meticulous detail.

If you do decide to go down the road of Atheide’s Media Analysis, get the book, it’s a handy guide and walks you through every step of the process.


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