Mass Media Research: An Introduction - 9th Edition
Roger D. Wimmer & Joseph R. Dominick

Research Reports

The first step in writing a research report is to identify the intended readers. This is important because the organization, the style, and even the mode of presentation depend on the target audience. In mass media research, there are typically two types of audiences and research reports:

In the first case, the format, length, style, and organization of a published report must conform to the guidelines of the journal in which it appears. Since colleagues are the target audience for such reports and papers, writers must pay close attention to the theory underlying the research, the methods used, and the techniques of analysis. In the second case, there is more flexibility. Some decision makers prefer to be briefed orally by the researcher. A verbal presentation may be supplemented by written summary handouts, visual aids, and on request, a detailed report. In other circumstances, the researcher might prepare a written report with a short executive summary, confining most of the technical material to appendixes. No matter what the situation or audience, the primary goals in all research reports are accuracy and clarity.

The Need for Accurate Reporting Procedures

Researchers need to report research accurately for two reasons. First, a clear explanation of the investigator’s methods permits readers to understand the project more completely.  Researchers should keep in mind that most readers’ knowledge of a given project is based solely on the information contained in the report. Since readers do not instinctively understand each procedure used in a study, these details must be supplied. Second, an accurate report provides the necessary information for those who wish to replicate the study. As Rummel (1970) suggests:

In non-proprietary research, enough information must be included or stored somewhere to allow for replication of the study without the necessity of personal contact with the researcher. This is to ensure that a study is always replicable despite the decades or generations that may pass.

Rummel even argues that researchers should be able to replicate a published study from the information contained in it. Realistically, however, this is not always possible. Mass media journals have limited space, and journal editors do not have the luxury of printing all the raw data, tables, and graphs generated by a study; they are forced to eliminate some essential information. Therefore, Rummel’s alternative—data archives—is very important.  Unfortunately, the mass media field has yet to establish its own data archive service for researchers to use. Thus, individual researchers must take full responsibility for accurately reporting and storing their own research data. To facilitate this task, the following sections describe the important elements of research that should be included in a published study. Some of the lists appear to be long, but most of the information can be expressed in a few short sentences. At any rate, it is better to include too much information than too little.

The Mechanics of Writing a Research Report

Beginning researchers may find the writing style used for research reports awkward or cumbersome, but there is a purpose for the rules that govern scientific writing: clarity. Every effort must be made to avoid ambiguity. Here are some suggestions, adapted from Saslow (1994) that are helpful in achieving clarity in a research report.

Given the variety of approaches to research, it stands to reason that the approaches to writing a research report are equally varied. Most research reports, however, include only seven basic sections: abstract, introduction, literature review, methods, results, discussion, and references.

  1. Abstract.  An abstract is a short (100-150 words) summary of the key points of the research. Most readers scan the abstract to decide whether they want to read the rest of the article.

  2. Introduction.  The introduction should alert the reader to what is to follow. Most introductions contain the following information:

-Variables used in the analysis. This includes a description of both independent and dependent variables, explaining how the variables were selected for the study, what marker variables (see Chapter 3), if any, were included, and how extraneous variables were controlled. Each variable also requires some justification for its use; variables cannot be added without reason. The mean and the standard deviation for each variable should be reported when necessary.

-Sample size. The researchers should state the number of subjects or units of study and also explain how these entities were selected. Additionally, any departure from normal randomization must be described in detail.

-Sample characteristics. The sample should be described in terms of its demographic, lifestyle, or other characteristics. When human subjects are used, at least their age and gender should be indicated.

-Methodology. Every research report requires a description of the methods used to collect and analyze data. The amount of methodological description to be included depends on the audience; articles written for journals, for instance, must contain more detailed information than reports prepared in private sector research.

-Data manipulation. Often the collected data are not normally distributed, and researchers must use data transformation to achieve an approximation of normality. If such a procedure is used, a full explanation should be given.

  1. Results.  The results section presents the findings of the research. It typically contains the following subsections:

-Description of the analysis. The statistical techniques used to analyze the data should be mentioned. If the analysis used common or easily recognized statistics, a one-sentence description might be all that is needed, such as “Chi-square analyses were performed on the data” or “Analysis of variance was performed. . . .” If appropriate, the particular statistical program used by the researcher should be identified. Finally, this part should include an overview of what is to follow: “This section is divided into two parts.  We will first report the results of the analysis of variance and then the results of the regression analysis.”

-Description of findings. The findings should be tied to the statement of the hypotheses or research questions mentioned in the introduction. The author should clearly state whether the results supported the hypothesis or whether the research questions were answered. Next, any peripheral findings can be reported. Many researchers and journal editors suggest that interpretation and discussion of findings be omitted from this section and that the writer stick solely to the bare facts. Others believe that this section should contain more than numbers and suggest the implications of the findings as well. In fact, for some short research articles, this section is sometimes called “Findings and Discussion.” The choice of which model to follow depends upon the purpose of the report and the avenue of publication.

-Tables. Tables, charts, graphs, and other data displays should be presented concisely and, if the article is being submitted to a journal, in the proper format. Remember that many readers turn first to the tables and may not read the accompanying text; consequently, tables should be explicit and easily understood by themselves. Visual materials for any research report can be produced easily with a variety of commercially available software packages. In combination with a color printer or plotter, the visual materials can be the predominant part of a research report, especially in reports for the private sector.

  1. Discussion.  The last section of a research report is the discussion. The contents of this section are highly variable, but the following elements are common:

  2. Summary. A synopsis of the main findings of the study often leads off this section.

-Implications/discussion/interpretations. This is the part of the report that discusses the meaning of the findings. If the findings are in line with current theory and research, the writer should include a statement of how they correspond with what was done in the past. If the findings contradict or do not support current theory, some explanation for the current pattern of results should be provided.

-Limitations. The conclusions of the study should be tempered by a report of some of its constraints. Perhaps the sample was limited, the response rate was low, or the experimental manipulation was not as clean as it could have been. In any case, the researcher should list some of the potential weaknesses of the research.

-Suggestions for future research. In addition to answering questions, most research projects uncover new questions to be investigated. The suggestions for research should be relevant and practical.

  1. References.  The authors, article titles, sources, and publication dates of the research mentioned in the research report are contained in the references. Each academic journal has a particular style for listing references. Some journals prefer listing all the references at the end of the article, and others use a system of footnotes that appear throughout the article.

Writing Style

Since the writing requirements for journal articles and business or government reports vary in several ways, our discussion is divided into two sections—scholarly journals and business and government reports..

Scholarly Journals

There are eight principal guidelines for writing for scholarly journals:

  1. Avoid using first-person pronouns: I, me, mine, we, and so on. Research reports are almost always written in the third person (“Subjects were selected randomly,” “Subject A told the researcher...,” and so on). First-person pronouns should be used only when the article is a commentary.

  2. When submitting a paper for professional publication, place each table, graph, chart, and figure on a separate page. This is done because, if the article is accepted for publication, one department of the printing company will print these pages, and another will typeset the text. (In management reports, tables, graphs, and other displays are included in the text unless they are too large, in which case they should be placed on separate pages.)

  3. Read the authors’ guidelines published by each journal.  They provide specific rules concerning acceptable writing style, footnote and bibliography formats, number of copies to submit, and so forth. A researcher who fails to follow these guidelines may decrease the chance that his or her report will be accepted for publication-or at least substantially delay the process while alterations are made.

  4. Be stylistically consistent concerning tables, charts, graphs, section headings, and so forth. All tables, for example, should follow the same format and should be numbered consecutively.

  5. Clearly label all displays with meaningful titles. Each table, graph, chart, or figure caption should accurately describe the material presented and its contribution to the report.

  6. Keep language and descriptions as simple as possible by avoiding unnecessary and overly complex words, phrases, and terms. The goal of scientific writing is to explain findings clearly, simply, and accurately.

  7. When possible, use the active rather than the passive voice. For example, “The researchers found that . . .” is preferable to “It was found by the researchers that...” Writing in the active voice makes reading more pleasant and also requires fewer words.

  8. Proofread the manuscript carefully. Even researchers who are meticulous in their scientific approach can make errors in compiling a manuscript. All manuscripts, whether intended for publication or for management review, should be proofread several times to check for accuracy. It is not enough to run a computer spelling or grammar check. There our many errors that spilling checkers will knot ketch, as this sentence proves.

Miscellaneous considerations:

Business and Government Reports

Guidelines for writing a report for business or government decision makers include the following:

References

Rummel, R. J. (1970). Applied factor analysis.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Saslow, C. (1994). Basic research methods. New York: McGraw-Hill.

 

©2009 Roger D. Wimmer & Joseph R. Dominick

Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 9th Edition, Home Page