Social Media as a Tool for Engaging Participants in Research: Experiences of Gender Inequality in Journalism


This case study relates to my PhD research that I undertook at the University of the West of Scotland between 2009 and 2013. My thesis analysed the expectations and experiences of gender inequality for women in journalism from 1970 onwards. It commenced with the year legislation to address inequality for women in the workplace was first introduced in the United Kingdom. The aim was to capture and compare women journalists' experiences of gender inequality and their perspectives of the impact of the legislation during the time period. A mixed-methods approach to data collection was used that included an online survey, face-to-face interviews and autobiographical reflective writing. This case study shows how social media was used first to identify female journalists of varied ages and backgrounds willing to be involved in the study and second to direct them to the first stage of the data collection. The outcome reveals that social media has the potential to be a successful tool in terms of ensuring wide and inclusive coverage from a representative sample of the target population; however, there are challenges in terms of controlling the sample and therefore of calculating response rates.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the case, you should

  • Have a better understanding of the potential for using social media as a tool for identifying a sample population
  • Have greater insight into different types of sampling strategies
  • Be able to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using social media for your own subject-specific research project

Project Overview and Context: Experiences of Journalism and Gender

The subject of my PhD thesis was to gauge the experiences of inequality for women journalists who had worked in different types of journalism since 1970 – the year that legislation providing women's rights in the workplace (the Equal Pay Act) was first passed in the United Kingdom. My aim was to document the experiences that had occurred over time as a result of this and subsequent equality legislation.

In mid-2009, when I started my research, gender equality was not regularly discussed in the UK press. This was perhaps reflective of a view that by the early years of the 21st century, any need for fresh debate about women and equal rights was seen as unnecessary as feminism had become passé. In the profession of journalism itself, there was also a perception that the glass ceiling had been broken as a result of a handful of women having reached the top of the profession. Having worked in journalism, I had insight that there were in fact varied experiences that had been neither documented nor analysed, so I commenced work on addressing this hypothesis through developing a research proposal on the subject and undertaking an extensive literature review.

The time frame for the study commenced in 1970, which was the year that the Equal Pay Act had been passed, and culminated in 2013, following the most recent equality legislation in the United Kingdom, the Equality Act of 2010. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 had been groundbreaking in the United Kingdom in that it had sought to eliminate gender discrimination in an employment contract in the financial terms offered to employees. The 2010 act consolidated 116 different pieces of equality legislation, including 35 acts, 52 statutory instruments, 13 codes of practice and 16 European Commission directives that had come into existence since 1970. My proposal therefore was to document and compare the experiences of the women in the profession following the introduction of key equality legislation up until the present time. It was apparent that there was the potential to include in the project journalists who had started working in the 1970s just after the first equality legislation was passed and for whom the time frame of the study would span their entire careers as many of them would be approaching retirement age. The experiences were to be explored along a number of themes identified as relevant to gender inequality in journalism during the literature review process. These included experiences relating to journalism as a male-dominated profession, the glass ceiling, inequalities in pay, sexism and chauvinism, ageism, a lack of role models and mentoring for women and the impact of the digital revolution on female journalists.

The aim was to document these experiences and to further compare and contrast the findings according to the decade that the women had joined the profession within the time frame of the study – that is, the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010 onwards. This approach came to my attention while reading Anthony Delano's work where he had specifically cited Heather Joshi's approach to data collection as of relevance to his own research into women and journalism. Heather Joshi has undertaken various longitudinal studies that have examined the employment and lifestyle patterns and experiences of women born several decades apart. It was this approach to examining experiences of women who were born decades apart that influenced my decision to compare the experiences further within the themes decade by decade, although it is acknowledged that my research differs from the work of Heather Joshi in that mine was not a longitudinal study.

The idea to use social media for engaging participants with the study was prompted by the increasing use of tools such as Twitter and Facebook by journalists in the United Kingdom at the time that the project was commencing. Nic Newman's study for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that social media ‘is increasingly moving centre stage’ in news organizations. The Cision Social Journalism Study report showed that 96% of UK journalists use social media on a daily basis and almost half (42%) stated they would not be able to carry out their work without it. Furthermore, a study by Porter Novelli published in 2012 found that women were more active users of social media than men. Therefore, I concluded that there was potential for a wide-ranging population of women journalists having an outward-facing presence on social media who may be interested in being part of my study sample.

The Research Approach

Research Design Strategy

The research design involved a case study approach in keeping with the general characteristics outlined by Robert Yin in Case Study Research: Design and Methods in that the study was focused on a ‘contemporary phenomenon in a real-life context’ (i.e. that of gender inequality in a specific profession). It evolved as a result of consideration of the subject of my PhD research (i.e. women in journalism) and reflection upon the key issues that emerged from my literature review (as outlined previously). Its focus was on examining experiences of inequality among a particular group of women (i.e. the sample was to include women who worked in journalism) and to examine their experiences of gender inequality over time. I developed a set of aims and objectives from these two elements of the study in order to provide a focus and also to establish a framework within which the research project could be addressed. These included the following aims: exploring the experiences of women journalists working in different media since 1970, reflecting on the impact of both equality legislation and different waves of feminism on these experiences and comparing these experiences. The objectives of the study included the following: the distribution of a self-completion questionnaire among 100 women journalists working in different types of media in each of the decades since 1970, to conduct semi-structured interviews with 20 of these women and for those interviewed to reflect further on their experiences through autobiographical writing. The principal research question that emerged from the project was to examine the following:

What have been the experiences of women working in journalism in the United Kingdom with regards to equality since the introduction of key equal rights legislation since 1970?

The research design process therefore was to involve a mixed-methods approach that incorporated both quantitative and qualitative research. The survey was to include a mixture of questions that would generate both quantitative and qualitative responses, and the second and third stages (the interview and the autobiographical writings) were to be purely qualitative. The approach was in keeping with methodological triangulation as defined by Alan Bryman in the SAGE Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods in that it involved ‘the use of more than one method for gathering data’ (p. 1143) and would involve examining similar findings from different perspectives.

The Survey

The survey was the first stage of the data collection, and, as stated, the aim was to achieve a target sample of 100 participants from the study population in order to allow for the data to be subdivided according to a number of criteria (e.g. the length of their career, the type of journalism they worked in). There were a number of reasons for this target sample size: an intention to generate results that were less biased, as it was a relatively large sample, and adopting a cumulative approach with the aim of generating an exploratory sample rather than a representative one. This was partly due to the fact that journalism is a profession for which it has historically proved difficult to gather data in terms of demographics and numbers.

Using an online survey had a number of benefits: It was accessed through a secure web link and was therefore straightforward to circulate through social media. The survey was created in the online tool SurveyMonkey ( and included 16 questions, which were a mixture of open-ended and closed-ended questions. The survey started with a welcome page detailing information about the project and the researcher, followed by a second page that outlined the ethical issues and required respondents to give their consent to being involved in the study – this was a compulsory question. The survey questions then followed and were categorized according to the following themes: the participant's career, including the length of their career; the type of journalism in which they worked; their views and experiences of inequality in journalism; and finally further information about the research project, which allowed participants to volunteer to be involved in the next stages of the study, as well as to provide their contact details.


The interviews were semi-structured and were designed to examine the themes of the study more thoroughly, by allowing for greater details and description to be gathered through face-to-face discussion. The number of interviewees was anticipated to be about 20 to allow for a small cross-sample of each of the decade groups: the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, the first decade of the 21st century and from 2010 onwards. I did not anticipate that there would be a large number of volunteers, nor was it considered practical to carry out a substantial number of face-to-face interviews due to time and distance. Information about the interviewees was captured in what Ina Bertrand and Peter Hughes in Media Research Methods describe as a ‘facesheet’. It consisted of a single page that collated the profile details of participants on factors such as gender, age, education, racial or ethnic background, place of birth and so on. The questions were designed to be complementary to those posed at the survey stage of the study and were designed to elicit greater detail on the key issues.

Autobiographical Writing

The final stage of the data collection was reflective writing in an autobiographical style. The intention was that such writings would allow the participants to reflect on any of the issues that arose during the interview and add further information about their experiences in their own time. While this stage was designed to be unstructured, I provided a series of writing prompts to remind the women about the key aims of the study. The material was to be collated via the online tool SurveyMonkey, as this allowed for the participants to click on a secure web link taking them directly to a large text box where they could write and submit their further reflections. The data were then collated to await content analysis.

Data Analysis

The data analysis of the quantitative data was undertaken using a combination of the statistical analysis tools embedded in SurveyMonkey and Microsoft Excel to scrutinize the data according to different subsamples, such as the length of the women's careers and the types of journalism in which they worked. The qualitative data generated at all three stages of the study underwent content analysis using a thematic approach, as put forward by Nigel King and Christine Horrocks in Interviews in Qualitative Research. Alan Bryman in Social Research Methods stated that one of the most significant developments in qualitative research is computer-assisted qualitative data analysis (CAQDAS), which makes the coding of data and the retrieval of analysis from that data much faster and more efficient than traditional analysis. Gathering data online made identifying themes and coding the data straightforward because such tools were embedded in the software, for example, the software automatically produced cloud diagrams of the key themes. The coded data were then downloaded as Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and charts were generated from them according to the different themes of the study.

Using Social Media for Engaging Participants with Data Collection

The Data Collection Strategy in Practice

The process of contacting potential participants commenced with the use of social networking sites. I initially used Facebook to contact a small sample of 15 female journalists I knew by messaging them directly through Facebook. This proved to be an effective means of communication, as this particular platform allowed for detailed messages to be sent including background information, details about the study and the aims and objectives of the project.

However, I progressed to employing Twitter in order to roll out the data collection process to a larger population of journalists. According to Cision's Social Journalism Study, a higher percentage of journalists use this platform as opposed to other social networking sites. The process involved sending direct messages (DMs) to female journalists within the United Kingdom who I already ‘followed’ on Twitter. Using this particular social network required more planning due to its character limit of 140 or fewer characters – at least 20 characters fewer than allowed on other social networking sites. I wrote a short message asking for assistance with the project, a brief reference to the subject matter and a hyperlink to the online survey website. A total of 94 DMs were sent out to women journalists who followed my own Twitter account. This round of requests resulted in 80 responses to the survey, 40 of whom volunteered to be interviewed and 34 DMs requesting to be kept informed of the findings of the study.

Following on from this, the data collection started to gather its own momentum due to some of the survey participants facilitating a snowball sampling process on my behalf, although they were not prompted to do so. This approach ranged from suggestions for other people and/or professional organizations that I should approach to take part in the study to re-tweeting my message to their own followers. Within the first couple of days after the survey had opened, almost 100 people had completed the survey, and this trend of engagement continued in the coming days and weeks. Within the next few weeks, the number of respondents increased to a total of 176 responses – a figure in excess of my target sample – and a total of 82 of the female journalists volunteered to go forward to the next two stages of the study. The number of responses to the survey was higher than anticipated, which allowed for a greater number of women to be interviewed from each decade group and provided a wider pool of participants to draw upon for the second and third stages of the research. The range of details about the women's professional backgrounds and experiences, their training, the length of their careers, the positions they held currently and in the past, their social class and so on allowed for greater scrutiny of the data according to a range of criteria. Although the momentum of the process inadvertently became a challenge, especially with regard to tracking the response rate to the study, it helped to ensure that a range of the target population was included in the study sample. Analysis of the demographic information about the participants showed that a representative sample of women from across the decade groups was indeed included in the study. There were women from all types of journalism and from each of the five decade categories – the 1970s, the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and from 2010 onwards. The largest group in terms of the length of their careers were those who entered the profession in the 2000s (35.1%, n = 61). In terms of the type of journalism in which the women had worked, the majority of the journalists had spent time on newspapers 75% (n = 132), which has traditionally been regarded as the most common entry route into the profession in the United Kingdom and is highlighted by Andy Bull in his book Essential Reporting: The NCTJ Guide for Trainee Journalists.

Due to the higher-than-anticipated number of responses at the interview stage, I aimed to interview six women from each of the five decade groups (i.e. to conduct 30 interviews). However, it was only possible to arrange 29 interviews, as one woman dropped out due to work commitments. Of these 29 women, 17 completed the autobiographical writing stage of the data collection process. The response rate for the final phase of the study therefore was 58.6%. I attributed this lower level of engagement to the fact that the women had already completed the first and the second phases of the research project up to 6 months earlier and possibly their level of interest in the study could have trailed off. In addition, as journalists, these women were ordinarily paid for anything they wrote, so it seemed understandable (particularly for those employed on a freelance basis) that a request to write for free would likely be low on their priority list when faced with a busy schedule.

Reflections on the Strategy from a Methodological Perspective

With regard to using social media specifically for research, there were a number of methodological perspectives that were relevant to the data collection strategy employed. These include views on e-research and consent, thoughts on different approaches to sampling strategies, as well as the impact of the approach on response rates.

At the time that I was setting out on my data collection journey, I found that the amount of material about the opportunities of using social media in the research process was low. Alan Bryman in Social Research Methods extensively addressed the broader concept of e-research that included discussion of the use of web surveys (and of SurveyMonkey, in particular) and briefly identified that sampling issues could arise with web-based software. He also warned against collecting data online without informed consent – an issue I had attempted to address through embedding the consent form into the online survey as a compulsory question. Since I have completed my study, NatCen Social Research has further explored the issue in its report Research Using Social Media. It too addressed the issue of ensuring informed consent, suggesting that there is transparency in terms of affiliations, research aims and plans for outputs, as well as providing reassurance for participants in terms of the credibility of the research.

The issue of recruiting via social networking sites has been discussed by Vera Toepoel in her chapter in the Handbook of Survey Methodology for the Social Sciences. While she acknowledged that most sites have the potential to provide good targeting options, low-level entry costs and do-it-yourself systems, she found through her own experience that there still remains uncertainty about the effectiveness of what she describes as these ‘new innovative methods’. However, she sees that the greatest potential for social networking as a recruiting method is through a snowball approach to sampling, although she found no evidence that it could work effectively in practice.

There were also issues in terms of the mixture of sampling strategies adopted and the resulting impact on calculating response rates. As outlined, the process of my data collection had commenced using existing contacts on Facebook. This approach was akin to convenience selection in that the participants were the first at hand. When the data collection process was rolled out further using Twitter, the sampling strategy extended to become one of purposive sampling in that the sample was hand-picked due to their relevance and knowledge. I was aware that there was scope for an element of snowball sampling, although I had not anticipated that the process of reference from one person to the next, especially due to the ‘like’, ‘share’ and ‘retweet’ capabilities of social media, would be so great. Martyn Denscombe in The Good Research Guide identifies that purposive sampling can be useful for establishing contact for surveys and can improve response rates (as my experience shows); however, he also states that snowball sampling can be advantageous in that the accumulation of responses can be quick. While this echoes with my own experience, on reflection, I can see that there is also a need to be mindful of the challenge around ensuring that the sample is representative of the population. Furthermore, there is potential for sampling bias in that participants tend to share with only like-minded people. The amount of information that I was able to capture about the journalists' backgrounds was, in hindsight, of benefit in terms of ensuring the sample that engaged with the study was representative of the target population.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Social Media to Generate Samples

The process of undertaking the study and using social media to engage a relevant sample of the population of female journalists was one that on reflection is seen to have demonstrated a number of advantages and disadvantages.

The key advantage was that I was able to engage with a wide range of the population (of women journalists in the United Kingdom) in an efficient manner. I was able to make contact with a large number of the relevant sample and direct them straight to the first method (i.e. the online survey). This allowed for information about the types of journalism in which they had been employed in the past and their current employment, their training and the length of their careers to be captured, which was to be useful in terms of digging down deeper into the data at the analysis stage.

However, there were challenges too in terms of keeping a track of response rates. Due to the approach adopted and the snowball effect that occurred in the data collection process, it became difficult to keep track of response rates – which had not been my intention. One way to address this in the future is to ask a question during the survey about how the respondent learned about the study, which could allow for greater scrutiny of any data gathered. It could also prove informative in terms of adding to the wider debate on research methods and the use of social media in the data collection process. There is also scope to discourage snowball sampling at the point of initial direct contact with participants who are contacted by researchers directly.

On reflection, the approach adopted was influenced by a concern that only a small number of women journalists would engage with the study which would prove to be a challenge in terms of collating data from the sample population.

Social Media as a Tool for Identifying a Research Sample: Practical Lessons Learned

In terms of practical lessons for researchers, I offer the following advice to those planning to use social media for data collection and for finding a sample to be involved in their study.

  • Plan ahead: Identify your target sample population. While I had some established contacts, I still needed to do further research to ensure that I would involve all different age ranges in my study and women from different parts of the United Kingdom. Identify what networks exist for reaching your ideal sample population and start to establish links with these individuals and/or groups on social media in advance.
  • Ensure your knowledge of the subject matter is thorough before you start. It is important (particularly due to the speed that you can receive responses) that you know exactly what you want to ask of your participants before you start contacting people; otherwise, your study could lose the momentum that social media can generate. This can be achieved by identifying key themes that have arisen from your literature review.
  • Think about how and where you will collect your data. My study used SurveyMonkey, but there are other software programs available for online data collection. Your decision will be influenced by the research methods that you plan to use.
  • Consider any ethical issues with your research. It is important to be aware of any ethical considerations for your project. In my study, I needed to ensure confidentiality and anonymity for all the participants, and I was able to do this by embedding the forms in the software. Liaise with your supervisor about your institution's ethics policy; your supervisor should be able to give you guidance here.
  • Consider the impact of your sampling strategy on the response rate. As demonstrated, it can be difficult to calculate the response rate if you adopt a snowball strategy to sampling, so it is important to consider how this could be addressed in practice.
  • Be bold, be confident. The approach I took received a lot of support and there was a lot of goodwill; however, I did not anticipate that there would be such a high number of female journalists willing to be involved in the study. So, on reflection, I advise anyone adopting such an approach not to be hesitant about using social media: be bold and be confident about your project; if your research is of interest and value to your sample population, then people will be happy to help.

Conclusion: Social Media as a Tool for Engaging Women in Journalism with a Study on Gender Inequality

In summary, using social media to instigate the data collection process for my research into journalism and gender inequality was successful, as it achieved the objectives in excess of my expectations, both in terms of the number of women who engaged with the study through social media and also the speed at which this occurred. The approach was successful in that it captured the experiences of women journalists who had worked across the time frame of the study and had worked in different media.

In practical terms, there is great scope for carrying out further research on journalism, gender inequality, as well as on other subjects, using social media as a tool for making connections and also as a vehicle for connecting the relevant population with the data collection methods. However, consideration should be given to ensuring that a representative sample population is involved in the study; as shown, the approach has potential implications in terms of calculating response rates depending upon the sampling strategy adopted. I found it to be a reliable way of collating a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data, and therefore encourage others to use it in their research projects.

Exercises and Discussion Questions

  • What were the advantages and disadvantages of using social media for this project to generate samples? What could be the potential advantages and disadvantages of using such an approach for your own research project?
  • In my project, I was able to identify how the profession I was researching used social media. Discuss how social media is used by the subject(s) you are researching and whether using social media could be of benefit to your own project.
  • Three methods were used in this study: survey, semi-structured interviews and autobiographical writing. What alternative methods could have been selected to address the research aims of this project?
  • What other sampling strategies could have been adopted for undertaking this research project?
  • Discuss how you could address the challenge of calculating response rates if you were to use social media to engage data participants with your study.
  • Compare and contrast different Web 2.0 platforms (such as blogging sites, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Wordle, etc.) and consider how they could be suitable during various stages of your research project, from early stages to completion.

Further Reading

Geary Pate, A. (2014). Someone to look up to: Lessons to be learned from the reflections of female journalists on the value of role models and mentors for career development. Journalism Education, 3, 46–64.
Geary Pate, A. (2014). Women in journalism: An analysis of expectations and experiences of equality within the profession in the United Kingdom from 1970 to the Present (PhD thesis). University of the West of Scotland, Paisley, UK.
Kaplan, A., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media. Business Horizons, 53, 59–68. Retrieved from
Murthy, D. (2008). Digital ethnography an examination of the use of new technologies for social research. Sociology, 42, 837–855. doi:


Beninger, K., Fry, A., Jago, N., Lepps, H., Nass, L., & Silvester, H. (2014). Research using social media: User's views. Retrieved from
Bertrand, I., & Hughes, P. (2005). Media research methods: Audiences, institutions, texts. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bryman, A. (2004). Triangulation. In M.Lewis-Beck, A.Bryman, & T.Liao (Eds.), The SAGE encyclopedia of social science research methods (pp. 1143–1144). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. Retrieved from
Bryman, A. (2012). Social research methods (
4th ed.
). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Bull, A. (2007). Essential reporting: The NCTJ guide for trainee journalists. London, England: SAGE.
Cision. (2013). Social journalism study 2013: United Kingdom. Retrieved from
Delano, A. (2003). Women journalists: What's the difference?Journalism Studies, 4, 273–286. Retrieved from
Denscombe, M. (2010). The good research guide: For small-scale social research projects (
4th ed.
). Maidenhead, UK: McGraw-Hill Open University Press.
King, N., & Horrocks, C. (2010). Interviews in qualitative research. London, England: SAGE.
Joshi, H. (1996). Combining employment and child-rearing: The story of British women's lives. In A.Offer (Ed.), In pursuit of the quality of life. London, England: Oxford University Press.
Newman, N. (2009). The rise of social media and its impact on mainstream journalism. Oxford, UK: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford.
Nowicka, H. (2012, February 14). Men are from foursquare, women are from Facebook [Porter Novelli Blog]. Retrieved from
Toepoel, V. (2012). Building your own online panel via email and other digital media. In L.Gideon (Ed.), Handbook of survey methodology for the social sciences (pp. 345–360). New York, NY: Springer Verlag.
Yin, R. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
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