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Journalism - Mass Media Research: Literature Review

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is both a summary and synthesis of scholarly published research on a particular topic.  It should explain to your readers what knowledge and ideas have been established on the topic, along with their strengths and weaknesses.

Literature reviews are important because they are usually a required step in a thesis proposal.  They also help you learn important authors, researchers and ideas in your field. 

A Literature Review Synthesis Matrix can be a helpful when synthesizing themes and ideas.

Literature reviews can be a subsection or a stand alone bibliographic essay.

  • Subsection literature reviews are often found after the introduction and before the methodology section of the work.  They may also be a part of a background section or appear before or after it.  Examples of subsection literature reviews:
    • Part of a research project/paper
    • A chapter in a dissertation or thesis
    • A section in a scholarly journal article
    • Analysis of existing research in a research proposal
    • Justification in a grant application
  • Stand alone bibliographic essay type literature reviews may include:
    • A literature review assigned for class to understand and write about current research on a topic
    • An analytical essay synthesizing an annotated bibliography into a formal paper
    • A review article for a scholarly journal

Suggestions for Conducting the Literature Review

Literature Review Resources

 Literature Reviews:  Books

Types of Literature Reviews

Argumentative Review

This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply imbedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature.  The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint.

Integrative Review

Probably the most common form of review in the social sciences, the integrative review is a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way so that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated.  The body of the literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems.

Historical Review

Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline.  The purpose is to place research in a historical context.

Methodological Review

A review does not always focus on what someone said, but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis].  Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels, how researchers draw upon a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis.  This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.

Systematic Review

This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?"

Theoretical Review

The purpose of this form is to concretely examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review help establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

Organize Your Reviews

Decide how to organize your reviews

Since one of the purposes of the literature reviews is to provide an overview and synthesis of the information you read, grouping similar articles can provide structure to your overview.

Examples of ways to organize a literature review:

  • Chronological - organize by how the topic has changed over time.  Define it; explain how it has evolved over time; and conclude with how it is viewed today.
  • Comparison to Present Hypothesis - An empirical article or meta analysis involves an hypothesis and conclusion.  Organize the review to show articles supporting your hypothesis and those disagreeing with it. It enables you to effectively show strengths of the supporting research, discuss validity and methodologies that disagree with your findings, summing up with how past research leads up to and supports yours.
  • Broad to Specific - Begin with the general and narrow down to specific issues until you reach articles similar to your research statement.
  • Major Models or Major Theories - Group articles by the theoretical framework preferred by the author of the article.
  • Prominent Authors - Use the bibliography or references to identify prominent authors who may have started or helped develop the field that is the topic of your review.
  • Contrasting Thoughts - Authors have contrasting views about a topic, group the literature review by those schools of thought and contrast their different approaches.
  • Problem to Solution - Group quotations from articles describing problems being addressed in your research, then group by solutions proposed in the articles.
  • Process Flow - If your literature review centers around a process, describe the stages in the process and group citations by stages or steps in the process.  Use the articles to describe the process or compare or contrast approaches.

    North Carolina State University, Bluford Library. (2015). Literature Review - Libquide.  Retrieved from

Create an Outline

Once you have decided on the organization structure of your literature review, create an outline.  An outline is a good way to organize you ideas, articles, quotations and references.

Create the outline based on your organization.  If you have organized your review chronologically, label time periods that mark changes in the history of your topic. Example:

1.  Origins  1970s

  • White, 1970, p 72-95
  • George, 1972, p 3-19
  • Wilder, 1972, p 45-60

2.  1980's-1990's

  • White, 1983, p 77-85
  • Underwood, 1985, p 125-140
  • Jemison, 1998, p 42-56

3.  Current

  • Thorson, 2013, p 28-45
  • Duffy, 2014, p 67-82
  • Rodgers, 2015, p 27-46

As you begin reading the articles, whenever you find a good quote, mark it with the part of the outline in which it fits.  Make note of the author, year and page number whenever you run across something in your reading that falls into a subsection in your review outline.

Guides for Conducting Literature Reviews

Guides for Conducting Literature Reviews