Survey research is an important and useful method of data collection. The survey is also one of the most widely used methods of media research, primarily due to its flexibility. Surveys, however, involve a number of steps. Researchers must decide whether to use a descriptive or an analytical approach; define the purpose of the study; review the available literature in the area; select a survey approach; a questionnaire design, and a sample; analyze and interpret the data; and, finally, decide whether to publish or disseminate the results. These steps are not necessarily taken in that order, but all must be considered before a survey is conducted.


To ensure that all the steps in the survey process are in harmony, researchers should conduct one or more pilot studies to detect any errors in the approach. Pilot studies save time, money, and frustration, since an error that could void an entire analysis sometimes is overlooked until this stage.


Questionnaire design is also a major step in any survey. In this chapter, examples have been provided to show how a question or interviewing approach may elicit a specific response. The goal in questionnaire design is to avoid bias in answers. Question wording, length, style, and order may affect a respondent's answers. Extreme care must be taken when questions are developed to ensure that they are neutral. To achieve a reasonable response rate, researchers should consider including an incentive, notifying survey subjects beforehand, and personalizing the questionnaire. Also, researchers should mention the response rate in their description of the survey.


Finally, researchers are charged with selecting a survey approach from among four basic types: mail, telephone, personal interview, and group administration. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages that must be weighed before a decision is made. The type of survey will depend on the purpose of the study, the amount of time available to the researcher, and the funds available for the study. In the future, survey researchers may depend less on the face-to-face survey and more on computer-assisted telephone interviewing.


Surveys are now used in all areas of life. Businesses, consumer groups, politicians, and advertisers use them in their everyday decision-making processes. Some firms, such as Gallup and Harris, conduct public opinion surveys on a full-time basis.



The importance of survey research to the public at large is confirmed by the frequent reporting of survey results in the popular media. This is especially evident during campaign periods, when the public continually hears or reads about polls conducted to ascertain candidates' positions with the electorate.


The increased use of surveys has created changes in the way they are conducted and reported. More attention is now given to sample selection, questionnaire design, and error rates. This means that surveys require careful planning and execution; mass media studies using survey research must take into account a wide variety of decisions and problems. This chapter acquaints the researcher with the basic steps of survey methodology.

4.1 Descriptive and Analytical Surveys


At least two major types of surveys are used by researchers: descriptive and analytical. A descriptive survey attempts to picture or document current conditions or attitudes, that is, to describe what exists at the moment. For example, the Department of Labor regularly conducts surveys on the amount of unemployment in the United States. Professional pollsters survey the electorate to learn its opinions of candidates or issues. Broadcast stations and networks continually survey their audiences to determine programming tastes, changing values, and lifestyle variations that might affect programming. In descriptive surveys of this type, researchers are interested in discovering the current situation in a given area.


Analytical surveys attempt to describe and explain why certain situations exist. In this approach two or more variables are usually examined to test research hypotheses. The results allow researchers to examine the interrelationships among variables and to draw explanatory inferences. For example, television station owners occasionally survey the market to determine how lifestyles affect viewing habits, or to determine whether viewers' lifestyles can be used to predict the success of syndicated programming. On a much broader scale, television networks conduct yearly surveys to determine how the public's tastes and desires are changing and how these attitudes relate to the perception viewers have of the three commercial networks.

4.2 Advantages of Survey Research


Surveys have certain well-defined advantages. First, they can be used to investigate problems in realistic settings. Newspaper reading, television viewing, and consumer behavior patterns can be examined where they happen, rather than in a laboratory or screening room under artificial conditions.


Second, the cost of surveys is reasonable considering the amount of information gathered. In addition, researchers can control expenses by selecting from four major types of surveys: mail, telephone, personal interview, and group administration.


A third advantage is that large amounts of data can be collected with relative ease from a variety of people. The survey technique allows the researcher to examine many variables (demographic and lifestyle information, attitudes, motives, intentions, and so on) and to use multivariate statistics to analyze the data. Also, geographic boundaries do not limit most surveys.


Finally, data helpful to survey research already exist. Data archives, government documents, census materials, radio and television rating books, and voter registration lists can be used as primary sources (main sources of data) or as secondary sources (supportive data) of information. With archive data, it is possible to conduct an entire survey study without ever developing a questionnaire or contacting a single respondent.

4.3 Disadvantages of Survey Research


Survey research is not a perfect research methodology. The technique also possesses several disadvantages. The first and most important is that independent variables cannot be manipulated as in laboratory experiments. Without control of independent variable variation, the researcher cannot be certain whether the relations between independent and dependent variables are causal or noncausal. That is, a survey may establish that A and B are related, but it is impossible to determine solely from the survey results that A causes B. Causality is difficult to establish because many intervening and extraneous variables are involved. Time series studies help correct this problem sometimes, but not always.


A second disadvantage is that inappropriate wording and placement of questions within a questionnaire can bias results. The questions must be worded and placed to unambiguously elicit the desired information. This problem is discussed later in the chapter.


A third disadvantage of survey research, especially in telephone studies, is the potential problem of talking to the wrong people. For example, a respondent may claim to be 18 to 24, but may in fact be well over 30 years old.


Finally, some survey researches are becoming more and more difficult to conduct. This is especially true with telephone surveys where answering machines, and respondents unwilling to participate, are creating very low incidence rates. Telemarketers (telephone salespeople) are essentially destroying mass media research. More and more people refuse to participate in legitimate studies for fear of attempts by the interviewer to try to sell something.


Even considering some of the problems, surveys can produce reliable and useful information. They are especially useful for collecting information on audiences and readership. General problems in survey research are discussed at the end of the chapter.

4.4 Constructing Questions


Two basic considerations apply to the construction of good survey questions: (1) The questions must clearly and unambiguously convey the desired information to the respondent, and (2) the questions should be worded to allow accurate transmission of respondents' answers to researchers.


Questionnaire design depends on choice of data collection technique. Questions written for a mail survey must be easy to read and understand, since respondents are unable to obtain explanations. Telephone surveys cannot use questions with long lists of response options; the respondent may forget the first few responses by the time the last ones have been read. Questions written for group administration must be concise and easy for the respondents to answer. In a personal interview the interviewer must tread lightly with sensitive and personal questions, which his or her physical presence might make the respondent less willing to answer. (These procedures are discussed in greater detail later in this chapter.)


The design of a questionnaire must always reflect the basic purpose of the research. A complex research topic such as media use during a political campaign requires more detailed questions than does a survey to determine a favorite radio station or magazine. Nonetheless, there are several general guidelines to follow regarding wording of questions and question order and length.


4.4.1 Types of Questions


Surveys can consist of two basic types of questions, open-ended and closed-ended. An open-ended question requires respondents to generate their own answers. For example:

What do you like most about your local newspaper?

What type of television program do you prefer? What are the three most important problems in your community?


Open-ended questions allow respondents freedom in answering questions and the chance to provide in-depth responses. Furthermore, they give researchers the opportunity to ask: "Why did you give that particular answer?" or "Could you explain your answer in more detail?" This flexibility to follow up on, or probe, certain questions enables the interviewers to gather information about the respondents' feelings and the motives behind their answers.


Also, open-ended questions allow for answers that researchers did not foresee in the construction of the questionnaire—answers that may suggest possible relationships with other answers or variables. For example, in response to the question, "What types of programs would you like to hear on radio?" the manager of a local radio station might expect to hear "news" and "weather" or "sports." However, a subject may give an unexpected response, such as "obituaries" (Fletcher & Wimmer, 1981). This will force the manager to reconsider his perceptions of some of the local radio listeners.


Finally, open-ended questions are particularly useful in a pilot version of a study. Researchers may not know what types of responses to expect from subjects, so open-ended questions are used to allow subjects to answer in any way they wish. From the list of responses provided by the subjects, the researcher then selects the most-often mentioned items and includes them in multiple-choice or forced-choice questions. Using open-ended questions in a pilot study generally saves time and resources, since all possible responses are more likely to be included on the final measurement instrument; there would be no reason to reconduct the analysis for failure to include an adequate number of responses or response items.


The major disadvantage associated with open-ended questions is the amount of time needed to collect and analyze the responses. Open-ended responses required interviewers to spend a lot of time writing down or typing answers. In addition, because there are so many types of responses, a content analysis (Chapter 8) of each open-ended question must be completed to produce data that can be tabulated. A content analysis groups common responses into categories, essentially making the question closed-ended. The content analysis results are then used to produce a codebook to code the open-ended responses. A codebook is essentially a menu or list of quantified responses. For example, "I hate television" may be coded as a 5 for input into the computer.


In the case of closed-ended questions, respondents select an answer from a list provided by the researcher. These questions are popular because they provide greater uniformity of response, and because the answers are easily quantified. The major disadvantage is that researchers often fail to include some important responses. Respondents may have an answer different from those that are supplied. One way to solve the problem is to include an "other" response followed by a blank space, to give respondents an opportunity to supply their own answer. The "other" responses are then handled just like an open-ended question—a content analysis of the responses is completed to develop a codebook. A pilot study or pretest of a questionnaire often solves most problems with closed-ended questions.


4.4.2 Problems in Interpreting Open-Ended Questions


Open-ended questions often provide a great deal of frustration. In many cases, respondents' answers are bizarre. Sometimes respondents don't understand a question and provide answers that are not relevant. Sometimes interviewers have difficulty understanding respondents, or they may have problems with spelling what the respondents say. In these cases, researchers must interpret the answer and determine which code is appropriate.


The following examples are actual verbatim comments from telephone surveys conducted by Paragon Research in Denver, Colorado. They show that even the most well-planned survey questionnaire can produce a wide range of responses. The survey question asked: "How do you describe the programming on your favorite radio station?" Some responses were:

  1. The station is OK, but it's geared to Jerry Atrics.

  2. I only listen to the station because my poodle likes it.

  3. The music is good, but sometimes it's too Tiny Booper.

  4. It's great. It has the best floor mat in the city.

  5. The station is good, but sometimes it makes me want to vomit.

  6. It's my favorite, but I really don't like it since my mother does.

  7. My parrot is just learning to talk, and the station teaches him a lot of words.

  8. My kids hate it, so I turn it up real loud.

  9. It sounds great with my car trunk open.

  10. My boyfriend forces me to listen.


4.4.3 General Guidelines

 Before examining whether specific question types are appropriate for survey research, some general do's and don'ts about writing questions are in order.



1. Make questions clear: This should go without saying, but many researchers become so closely associated with a problem that they can no longer put themselves in the respondents' position. What might be perfectly clear to researchers might not be nearly as clear to persons answering the question. For example, "What do you think of our company's rebate program?" might seem to be a perfectly sensible question to a researcher, but to respondents it might mean, "Is the monetary amount of the rebate too small?" "Is the rebate given on the wrong items?" "Does it take too long for the rebate to be paid?" or "Have the details of the program been poorly explained?" Questionnaire items must be phrased precisely so that respondents know what is being asked.


Making questions clear also requires avoiding difficult or specialized words, acronyms, and stilted language. In general, the level of vocabulary commonly found in newspapers or popular magazines is adequate for a survey. Questions should be phrased in everyday speech, and social science jargon, whereas, technical words should be eliminated. 


The clarity of a questionnaire item can be affected by double or hidden meanings in the words that are not apparent to investigators. For example, the question, "How many television shows do you think are a little too violent-most, some, few, or none?" contains such a problem. Some respondents who feel that all TV shows are extremely violent will answer "none" on the basis of the question's wording. These subjects reason that all shows are more than "a little too violent"; therefore, the most appropriate answer to the question is "none." Deleting the phrase "a little" from the question helps avoid this pitfall. In addition, the question inadvertently establishes the idea that at least some shows are violent. The question should read, "How many television shows, if any, do you think are too violent—most, some, few, or none?" Questions should be written so they are fair to all types of respondents.


2. Keep questions short: To be precise and unambiguous, researchers sometimes write long and complicated items. However, respondents who are in a hurry to complete a questionnaire are unlikely to take the time to study the precise intent of the person who drafted the items. Short, concise items that will not be misunderstood are best.



3. Remember the purposes of the research: It is important to include in a questionnaire only items that directly relate to what is being studied. For example, if the occupational level of the respondents is not relevant to the hypothesis, the questionnaire should not ask about it. Beginning researchers often add questions merely for the sake of developing a longer questionnaire. Keep in mind that parsimony in questionnaires is a paramount consideration.


4. Do not ask double-barreled questions: A double-barreled question is one that actually asks two or more questions. Whenever the word and appears in a question, the sentence structure should be examined to see whether more than one question is being asked. For example, "This product is mild on hands and gets out stubborn stains. Do you agree - or disagree?" Since a product that gets out stubborn stains might at the same time be highly irritating to the skin, a respondent could agree with the second part of the question while disagreeing with the first part. This question should be divided into two items.

5. Avoid biased words or terms: Consider the following item: "In your free time, would you rather read a book or just watch television?" The word just in this example injects a pro-book bias into the question because it implies that there is something less than desirable about watching television. In like manner, "Where did you hear the news about the president's new program?" is mildly biased against newspapers; the word here suggests that "radio," "television," or "other people" is amore appropriate answer. Questionnaire items that start off with "Do you agree or disagree with so-and-so's proposal to . . ." almost always bias a question. If the name "Adolph Hitler" is inserted for "so-and-so," the item becomes overwhelmingly negative. By inserting "the President," a potential for both positive and negative bias is created. Any time a specific person or source is mentioned in a question, the possibility of introducing bias arises.


6. Avoid leading questions: A leading question is one that suggests a certain response (either literally or by implication) or contains a hidden premise. For example, "Like most Americans, do you read a newspaper every day?" suggests that the respondent should answer in the affirmative or run the risk of being unlike most Americans. The question "Do you still use marijuana?" contains a hidden premise. This type of question is usually referred to as a double bind: regardless of how the respondent answers, an affirmative response to the hidden premise is implied — in this case, he or she has used marijuana at some point.


7. Do not use questions that ask for highly detailed information. The question "In the past 30 days, how many hours of television have you viewed with your family?" is unrealistic. Few respondents could answer such a question. A more realistic approach would be to ask, "How many hours did you spend watching television with your family yesterday?" A researcher interested in a 30-day period should ask respondents to keep a log or diary of family viewing habits.


8. Avoid potentially embarrassing questions unless absolutely necessary: Most surveys need to collect data of a confidential or personal nature, but an overly personal question may cause embarrassment and inhibit respondents from answering honestly. Two common areas with high potential for embarrassment are age and income. Many individuals are reluctant to tell their exact ages to strangers doing a survey. Instead of asking directly how old a respondent is, it is better to allow some degree of confidentiality by asking, "Now, about your age — are you in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, . . . ?" Most respondents are willing to state what decade they fall in, and this information is usually adequate for statistical purposes. Interviewers might also say, "I'm going to read several age categories to you. Please stop me when I reach the category you're in."


Income may be handled in a similar manner. A straightforward, "What is your annual income?" often prompts the reply, "None of your business." It is more prudent to preface a reading of the following list with the question "Which of these categories includes your total annual Income"


-          More than $30,000

-          $15,000-$29,999

-          $8,000-$14,999

-          $4,000-$7,999

-          $2,000-$3,999

-          Under $2,000


These categories are broad enough to allow respondents some privacy but narrow enough for statistical analysis. Moreover, the bottom category, "Under $2,000," was made artificially low so that individuals who fall into the $2,000-$3,999 slot would not have to be embarrassed by giving the very lowest choice. The income classifications depend on the purpose of the questionnaire and the geographic and demographic distribution of the subjects. The $30,000 upper level in the example would be much too low in several parts of the country.


Other potentially sensitive areas include people's sex lives, drug use, religion, business practices, and trustworthiness. In all these areas, care should be taken to ensure respondents of confidentiality and even anonymity, when possible.



The simplest type of closed-ended question is one that provides a dichotomous response, usually "agree/disagree" or "yes/no." For example:

Television stations should editorialize.

  • Agree

  • Disagree

  • No opinion


While such questions provide little sensitivity to different degrees of conviction, they are the easiest to tabulate of all question forms. Whether they provide enough sensitivity is a question the researcher must seriously consider.

The multiple-choice question allows respondents to choose an answer from several options. For example:


In general, television commercials tell the truth. . .

  • All of the time

  • Most of the time

  • Some of the time

  • Rarely

  • Never


Multiple-choice questions should include all possible responses. A question that excludes any significant response usually creates problems. For example:

What is your favorite television network?

  • Channel 1

  • Channel 2

  • Channel 3


Subjects who favor Channel 4 or 5 (although not networks in the strictest sense of the word) cannot answer the question as presented.


Additionally, multiple-choice responses must be mutually exclusive: there should be only one response option per question for each respondent. For instance:

How many years have you been working in newspapers?

  • Less than one year

  • One to five years

  • Five to ten years


Which blank should a person with exactly five years of experience check? One way to correct this problem is to reword the responses, such as:

How many years have you been working in the Cairo University?

  • Less than one year

  • One to five years

  • Six to ten years


Ratings scales are also widely used in social research. They can be arranged horizontally or vertically:


There are too many commercials on TV.

  • Strongly agree (translated as a 5 for analysis)

  • Agree (translated as a 4) Neutral (translated as a 3)

  • Disagree (translated as a 2)

  • Strongly Disagree (translated as a l)


What is your opinion of TV news?

Fair __ __ __ __ __ Unfair

  (5)  (4)  (3)  (2)  (1)


Semantic differential scales are another form of rating scale and are frequently used to rate persons, concepts, or objects. These scales use bipolar adjectives with seven scale points:


How do you perceive the term public television?

Good                          ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ----   Bad

Happy                         ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ----   Sad

Uninteresting             ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ----   Interesting

Dull                                          ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ----   Exciting



 In many instances researchers are interested in the relative perception of several concepts or items. In such cases the rank ordering technique is appropriate. Here are several common occupations. Please rank them in terms of their prestige. Put a 1 next to the profession that has the most prestige, a 2 next to the one with the second most, and so on.

  • Police officer

  • Banker

  • Lawyer

  • Politician

  • TV reporter

  • Teacher

  • Dentist

  • Newspaper writer


Ranking of more than a dozen objects is not recommended because the process can become tedious and the discriminations exceedingly fine. Furthermore, ranking data imposes limitations on the statistical analysis that can be performed.


The checklist question is often used in pilot studies to refine questions for the final project. For example:


What things do you look for in a new television set? (Check as many as apply.)

  • Automatic fine tuning

  • Remote control

  • Large screen

  • Cable ready

  • Console model

  • Portable Stereo sound

  •  Other _________


The most frequently checked answers may be used to develop a multiple-choice question; the unchecked responses are dropped.


Forced-choice questions are frequently used in media studies designed to gather information about lifestyles and are always listed in pairs. Forced-choice questionnaires are usually very long — sometimes dozens of questions — and repeat questions (in different form) on the same topic. The answers for each topic are analyzed for patterns, and a respondent's interest in that topic is scored. A typical forced-choice questionnaire might contain the following pairs:


Select one statement from each of the following pairs of statements:

  • I enjoy attending parties with my friends.

  • I enjoy staying at home alone.

  • Gun control is necessary to stop crime.

  • Gun control can only increase crime.

¨      If I see an injured animal, I always try to help it.

¨      If I see an injured animal, I figure that nature will take care of it.


 Respondents generally complain that neither of the responses to a forced-choice question is satisfactory, but they have to select one or the other. Through a series of questions on the same topic (violence, lifestyles, career goals), a pattern of behavior or attitude generally develops.


Fill-in-the-blank questions are used infrequently by survey researchers. However, some studies are particularly suited for fill-in-the-blank questions. In advertising copy testing, for example, they are often employed to test subjects' recall of a commercial. After seeing, hearing, or reading a commercial, subjects receive a script of the commercial in which a number of words have been randomly omitted (often every fifth or seventh word). Subjects are required to fill in the missing words to complete the commercial. Fill-in-the-blank questions can also be used in information tests. For example, "The senators from your state are _____ and _____." Or, "The headline story on the front page was about _____."


Tables, graphs, and figures are also used in survey research. Some ingenious questioning devices have been developed to help respondents more accurately describe how they think and feel. The next page shows a simple picture scale for use with young children, Figure 4.1.

Figure 4.1: A simple picture scale for use with young children

Some questionnaires designed for children use other methods to collect information. Since young children have difficulty in assigning numbers to values, one logical alternative is to use pictures. For example, the interviewer might read the question, "How do you feel about Saturday morning cartoons on television?" and present the faces to elicit a response from a 5-year-old. Zillmann and Bryant (1975) present a similar approach in their "Yucky" scale.