Research on Communications Policy


Excerpts from Introduction to the Internet for Electronic Media by Daniel Kerland, Frank Messere, and Philip Palombo (Wadsworth Publishing Co. 1996)

Chapter Five - Internet and Searching for Data

General Concerns About Research

Doing research in the library is one thing. Research on the Internet is something else, again. Sure there are many similarities to conducting research via an electronic network and using a modern research library, but just for the sake of argument let's look the differences in their extreme.

Why doing research in the library may be somewhat different that using the Internet:

Library Research:

Internet Research:

If you compare the two lists, you'll notice that there are some real differences in the way you research on the Internet. Up to this point, we've talked about the many different software and hardware tools that make up the Internet. Since the Internet is a network of networks there are numerous different ways to start a search for the information you want to access, but clearly some search tools are better than others for specific purposes.

In this chapter we make a distinction between 'surfing'; that is, crusing the Web for information for pleasure and research for academic, informational, and/ or business purposes. We'll focus on the latter aspect here. But, before we start, you need to remember that the Internet is more than just the hardware and software connections. It is populated by people who may not always provide information in the manner that we would normally expect.

Research Starts With One Or More Interesting Questions

Just as we know from our library usage, research we conduct is guided by a number of defining criteria for which we can form questions: What am I looking for? Or, where can I find information about this topic? How much material will I need for this project?

Research usually begins because we want to know something. You may seek information about a specific topic (How much money did the ABC Television network make last year?) or a wide range of ideas pertaining to a broad topic (What does ethics mean to journalists?). Research often involves focusing on a topic and finding specific information about that topic (Have EEO laws helped minorities gain access to jobs in the media?).

We do research for many good reasons. We don't know the answer to something and we want to find out the answer. Or, we have an idea that we want to inform ourselves about. We think we know the answer to a question and we want to see if it's correct. In any case, research allows us to find answers to appropriate questions.

Finally, posing a research question assumes that the information you want to know really exists, and that you can locate that information. If the information exists you'll need to know how to find out where to look . Which brings us to the second point.

Research Should be Guided by Current Knowledge and Previous Experiences

The more you practise the better you become. If you are a musician you probably know that's particularly true for developing good technique. This is often true of research, too. The more research you do the more adept you will become at doing research. And, if you know something about a topic, you often know where to look for more information. While this may seem obvious, it is not. You can waste hours researching the wrong information, hours that could be saved with a little thought about how to approach your research task before you start.

Pick an appropriate question or series of questions to start your work. Questions such as: 'Why is this important?' 'Who is effected by this information?' 'How does this work?' are often good beginnings. If you know who cares about an issue, you may be well on your way to focusing your topic and developing a research strategy. Generalizing your question, if it is too specific, is as important as focusing your question when it is too broad. So, defining your research questions well is extremely important. Knowing something about what you are looking for is much better than beginning without a clue!

Discriminating Between Primary and Secondary Research Data

Once you recognize the kind of information you are seeking, you are well on your way to realizing where it might be found. In addition, recognizing the sources of the information you seek provides you with a context for evaluating how important that research might be to answering your questions. Understanding the context of that information will help you determine whether the information you accumulate is either primary or secondary.

Primary research is generally considered to be data directly from or related to the original source. If you were looking into what requirements a television station had to meet in order comply with the Children's Television Act, you could read the actual rules established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to enforce the act. This would be an example of using primary research.

You may be confused by the legal terminology or specific language used in the FCC's rules. You might not understand how the Commission determines that a station is in compliance with the requirements of the Act. If you sought out research that described or analyzed how the rules applied to television stations, that analysis would be considered secondary research.

Here is an important point. Secondary research is usually interpretitive ; that it; secondary research provides analysis, opinion, or amplifies upon primary research. As a researcher you need to evaluate the significance of the secondary research you acquire.

For example, suppose you found a page of information from a communications law firm that describes the FCC's" enforcement requirements of the Children's Television Act as diffiucult to meet and possibly infringing upon the First Amendment rights of the television station owner. You might also find the home page of a public interest group that claims the FCC had not gone far enough in requiring television stations to provide adequate educational programing for children.

Both of these pages would be valid secondary sources of information, but which interpretation of the primary data, the FCC's enforcement rules, do you believe is correct? Because Internet information can be posted by anyone with access, and comes from thousands of users with differing viewpoints, the veracity of the information collected must constantly be evaluated.

Before we accept the information we've collected, we need to ask ourselves how credible the information is. Fortunately, we can generalize about what is primary and secondary research. Again generalizations help us develop a sense of what is important and what is not. Examples of primary information would be:

Examples of secondary information would be:

A Research Model Driven By What You Know and What You Don't

Research is not just discovery; gathering useful research requires you to discriminate between what is important and what is not. After some time you must combine important bits of information together. Let's use the example of FCC rules again.

Frequently the idea of looking at FCC rules scares people into believing that Commission rules and regulations (as they are called) are just too difficult for a layperson to understand. People are frequently scared off by the legalistic sounding langauge. Many are surprised to find out that they can understand the information contained in FCC documents by researching some general secondary information about the subject first before they attempted the understand the primary material. So, it is often easier to start reseraching secondary sources before primary sources.

The point here is to start the learning about your topic as quickly as possible. As you gain information about your topic you are better able to evaluate the usefulness of the next bits of research you collect. Frequently, as you search, you'll discover new areas of interest which may allow you to better focus or refocus your work. The Internet is a wonderful resource for finding information, and it can serve as an excellent start for finding secondary sources.

Internet Concerns

The Internet is constantly changing; it is bigger than its creators ever envisioned. Everyday new resources are added giving us access to new information. Information resources that were costly or unavailable just a year ago are now readily accessible to the Internet user. Databases that were available only to private subscribers are now available to Internet users who are willing to pay using one>f several credit METHODS available for electronic commerce. However, before you can just start searching, you'll have to have some idea what's on the Internet and how to access it.

Knowing where to look depends on knowing where you should look. A number of electronic resources can provide you with general and specific information. This TEXT is primarily concerned with subject related to the electronic media, but that covers a tremendous area. Some of the various search areas include:

For a more complete discussion on using the Internet for research check out "Introduction to the Internet for Electronic Media"

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©by Fritz Messere 1996-2000. All Rights Reserved. Last Updated 8/20/2000