GAO often expresses an assignment’s objectives in the form of three broad categories of evaluation question: descriptive, normative, or impact questions. (GAO, 1991c) In theory, content analysis can address all three categories. In practice, descriptive and normative questions are especially amenable to content analysis; program impact questions are less commonly answered through content analysis.
Answering a descriptive question provides information about conditions or events. For example, in a report on alleged censorship of news stories in Stars and Stripes, GAO used content analysis to describe the sources and nature of articles printed in the paper’s European and Pacific editions. An advisory panel of professional journalists made judgments about allegations of managing and censoring the news; GAO supplied the results of its content analysis to the panel for its deliberations.
The answer to a normative question compares an outcome to a norm, or standard. In the Stars and Stripes report, evaluators made normative comparisons between news coverage and content in the military newspaper and related stories from the Associated Press and United Press International that had been the source for the Stars and Stripes stories. The question “To what extent does the content of news stories in Stars and Stripes indicate news management or censorship?” is normative because it implies a criterion.
Impact questions were beyond the scope of GAO’s Stars and Stripes study. For example, the evaluation did not attempt to estimate the impact of a 1984 change in Department of Defense (DOD) editorial policy for the newspaper by comparing news articles before and after 1984. In another study, however, GAO evaluators did use content analysis to examine the perception of impact rather than the impact itself when they determined the views of military veterans about health care in VA hospitals. (GAO, 1994b)
Source: GAO (2013), Content Analysis: A Methodology for Structuring and Analyzing Written Material: PEMD-10.3.1, BiblioGov.