Analysis of readers’ comments in online newspapers

Last week I attended the joint international conference of EASA and AAA Medical Anthropology Networks. The previous days, the 2013 Medical Anthropology Young Scholars Meeting took place at the same venue, and I presented a paper entitled “Online ethnography in medical anthropology: the analysis of readers’ comments in online newspapers”.

The aim of the presentation was to talk about a particular research technique that I’ve used as part of the research project “Toxic corporality in Spain”. Briefly, the goal of this ongoing project is to analyze the social and scientific discourses about pollution and contamination, as well as the perception of risk, danger and toxicity among Catalan population that has not been highly exposed, intoxicated or diagnosed with an environmental disease. The project employs a mixed methodology approach that includes semi-structured interviews, an online survey and media data analysis.

The aim of the paper was to discuss one of the research techniques used in the study: the analysis of the comments made by readers of digital press on the websites of the major Spanish newspapers regarding issues of atmospheric pollution and food contamination.

Although media researchers are beginning to use the discourse analysis of online reader’s comments for academic purposes, no previous research within medical anthropology that uses this particular source of information was found in the exploratory study for this investigation. Considering the amount of news about risk and toxicity in the Spanish press, and the significant role of mass media and the Internet in the formation of lay knowledge and social perceptions about health and health risks, we decided to use these data as part of the project.

Several methodological and ethical issues rose during the investigation, and my intention during the presentation was to bring up those concerns and discuss them with the audience. Those are clearly not new issues for the anthropological discipline, as many media scholars have long been analysing them, but many medical anthropologists seem to be far away from the Internet as a research tool (or field). It turned out to be a really engaging and fruitful discussion.

The issues we examined had to do with such things as:

  • The advantages and difficulties posed by the (presumed?) absence of the researcher from the field.
  • The lack of traditional indicators for analysis, such as age, gender, economic status or place of residence.
  • The representational capacity of the collected data and its legitimacy.
  • The ethical and methodological issues raised by anonymity and privacy, such as the impossibility of getting informed consent or the definition of news forums as a public space.

The presentation is available here.

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