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Ethnography is a method of research that is entirely dedicated to collecting detailed information on social behavior in a particular context. Ethnography is a branch of anthropology, which provides scientific information, descriptions and interpretations of human social behavior. It is a systematic method of study that observes how humans interact and act in a particular and defined culture (Useful Ethnographies, 2010). The ethnographer  (a researcher who uses the ethnographic approach) observes and collects data in a natural setting. He or she has to understand  how an event is perceived and understood in a particular community. Ethnography greatly relies on the observations of  interactions and interviews with the participants in a naturally occurring situation. This essay shall, for this reason, extensively discuss the strengths and limits of ethnography as a method of study for the study of media institutions.

Ethnography of Media Institutions

A media institution is a firm that possesses a large number of companies in different mass media such as publishing, television and radio. In the context of media study, ethnography refers to the research method that involves the ethnographer spending considerable time in the field, observing and conversing with journalists and documenting their professional practices and culture. This process takes place as the journalists go about their daily tasks. This method of study requires total commitment, time, and self-reflexivity (Useful Ethnographies, 2010). The particular research approach has brought about exemplary insights into the nature of media, especially that of news, its informing practices and culture. Participant observation is destined to be reflexive, open to the possibility of the field experience. For this reason, the ethnography is less than strictly linear in its execution or predictable in its findings as opposed to other methods. Nevertheless, the fruitful participant observation depends on prior reading and identification of the research questions. The process also invariably involves sequenced research stages comprising of research design, negotiating field relationships, securing access, collecting and recording data, analyzing data and the final write-up. In the particular context of news study, participant observation demonstrates a number of evident strengths.

Strengths of Ethnography

Records and makes the invisible visible

Ethnography is the only research method by which the usually invisible realm of media production can be recorded and made accessible to wider scrutiny. For example, published insider experiences and interview proofs are often a weak alternative for comprehensive and acutely informed scholarly studies, which can go beyond assumptions that are taken for granted (Hannerz, 2004).

Counters the Problem of Inference

Ethnography goes behind the scenes of media output to help reveal the complexity of forces, pressures, and conventions that mould the selections and silences of media output. Critics of the media often make an illicit leap from the critical reading of the media content to inferences about the explanations or motivations accounting for the production. For this reason, the critics often get it wrong. Importantly, participant observation is capable of observing and analyzing the selection decisions and practices that cosign news elements to the waste and the output of ‘news silences’ (Hughson, 2008). These are all processes that the critics of the news media are not privy to.

Improves on Other Methods Through Triangulation

Participant observation implements a number of methods in the research process. Some of the methods include observations, talks and interviews and attending to documentary sources. Although separately the methods tend to have their weaknesses, they form a stronger basis together, on which evidence nad findings can be triangulated. This means that the claims nad accounts that are produced from one source can be compared and contrasted to those from another (Hughson, 2008). For this reason, consistencies can easily be recognized and interpreted while discrepancies can be pursued further in order to find deeper, more credible and valid interpretations. This, in turn, can prompt further multi-pronged inquiries until the researcher is confident enough that a more sensible comprehension of the situation has been achieved.

Qualifies or Corrects Speculative Theoretical Claims

Despite the fact that, enhanced comprehension can only advance within the guiding foundations of the theory, the latter should always be dealt with where possible in the light of sources of evidence. As was initially stated, participant observation can provide a rich source of evidence that can be put usefully to a broad range of theoretical approaches (Hughson, 2008). Some of the approaches include significant conspiracy theories, social compositional methods, political economy and cultural studies outlooks.

Reminds Us of the Possible Nature of Cultural Production

At times, it is very easy to get immersed within the guiding foundation of a theoretical method, that the world can assume the form of an esthetically pleasing, but empirically distorted, theoretical object. Participant observation plays an enormous role in reminding us that processes of cultural production are less clean and tidy and are leakier than the theorists sometimes acknowledge. It also manages to point out the complexities and the possibilities involved in the ‘mediations’ of cultural processes (Hughson, 2008).

Provides Evidence of Cultural Output

It also happens that media production is not protected from the rest of society or wider dynamics of change. Cultural production responds to greater forces of change: political, commercial, technological and cultural. Participant observation studies help one to identify how producers negotiate these impinging realities and with what consequences in terms of news silences and output (Hughson, 2008).

Limitations of Ethnography

External influences

The methodological focus in the immediate vicinity of news production is sometimes said to give too much explanatory weight to visible practices of production only and not external forces. This particular criticism could be on target if participant observation studies were conducted through the theoretically innocent prism of native empiricism. Most, for this reason, are aware of these wider and impinging forces and seek how they can be negotiated in and through the intricacies of production and professional practices. For example, a study conducted by Curran, Gurevitch and Woollacott (1977) observed at closed quarters the intensified commercial, technological nad political pressures bearing down on a particular news organization. Taylor and Willis (1999) also noted how this resulted in corporate restructuring and affected program design production and output.

Internal Managerial Pressures

The second limitation is that the ethnographic approach has a methodological blind spot that fails to conceal the manner in which managerial pressures are brought to bear on journalists (Curran, 1989). This may be a more damaging limitation since it is hard to gain regular access as a participant observer to senior levels of management.

Epistemology and Ontology

Ethnography is fraught with epistemological questions on how we acquire the knowledge about something and what mainly consists of knowledge, as well as ontological questions about the nature of the reality. The ethnographer may opt to use the first person’s voice for his written narratives. He or she may also prefer to write in the third person’s voice, demonstrating self-efficacy and proclaiming a stance of scientific detachment (Positivist). He or she may also adopt a position somewhere in between (critical realist) invariably reflects these underlying epistemological commitments. Inevitably basic philosophical positions produce debates and disagreements about the continuing validity or the appropriate stance of ethnography as a research practice (Curran, 1989).

On the Move and Multisite Ethnography

The field of media production is changing rapidly. The processes of corporate convergence and conglomeration, as well as the arrival of the new digital technologies, are facilitating a global network of communication flows. In this interpenetrating communications environment, news production no longer takes place within any one organizational center of production. It has become increasingly dispersed across multiple sites, different platforms and can be contributed to by journalists located in various places around the world or on the move. Journalists and editors are now located in different areas but are all working on similar stories and all able to access, transmit and edit the same news materials. Clearly this presents  serious threats to today’s ethnographer (Hannerz 2004). Multisite ethnographies, both concurrently and successive, are nonetheless practically hard to implement. As a result, they are relatively unusual. The intricate flows of news communications and the spread of productive activities need international research cooperations as well as methodological resourcefulness. This is essential for the capturing of the online traces of journalist production activity before they evaporate into the virtual ether (Hannerz 2004).


Media production and media ethnography involve so much more than the study of news. Nevertheless, they have generated some of the most penetrating revelations into the sophistications and the requisite levels of analysis in the empirical survey of media production. This is mainly because news ethnographies are the most developed field of work in this area. There is an increasing focus on the news about the management of politics and contention in society, as well as the change of a wider news culture across the globe. As a result of this, the globalization of news is only set to increase in the foreseeable future. In this situation, the ethnographic studies based on news production and proceedings remain as significant as ever for enhanced comprehension of the powered dynamics of news communications in the modern world.









Anon, 2010. Useful Ethnographies. General Anthropology, 17(2), pp.16-17.

Curran, J., Gurevitch, M. and Woollacott, J., 1977. Mass communication and society. London [etc.]: Edward Arnold in association with The Open University Press.

Hannerz, U., 2004. Soulside. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Hughson, J., 2008. Ethnography and `physical culture’. Ethnography, 9(4), pp.421-428.

Taylor, L. and Willis, A., 1999. Media studies. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.


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