Online comments, still the most widely-used medium for audience participation and public engagement in mainstream news websites, continue to pose complex challenges to newsrooms.
Concern about the poor quality of comments – whether rudeness or hate speech – is often unmatched by resources to effectively manage participation.
Few newsrooms have reliable strategies to deal with readers’ comments. Over time media outlets have explored different moderation options by trial and error, including some radical alternatives, such as abandoning online news comments and/or moving them to Facebook-commenting.
Where newsrooms opt to keep reader comments, management strategies can take different approaches: ‘vigilant’ (where journalists “pre-moderate” or assess every comment before its publication); ‘loose’ (where the journalists only intervene in case of complaints by users); or more ‘decentralized/mixed’, which corresponds to a collaborative moderation, embedding users in the process.
Recent studies have examined a number of alternative approaches to comment moderation and reveal that attitudes are changing.
Journalists interact more with readers online
For one study, Normalising Online Comments, researchers Gina Chen and Paromita Pain interviewed 34 journalists about their views on reader comments. They found that journalists are becoming more comfortable with the practice and often engage with commenters to foster deliberative discussions or to quell incivility. This contrasts with earlier research that found journalists held negative attitudes towards online comments.
Chen and Pain, of the University of Texas School of Journalism, found that journalists are reasserting their public gate-keeping role, by moderating objectionable remarks and engaging with readers who contribute. In addition, the study suggests journalists are participating in “reciprocal journalism” by fostering mutually beneficial connections with the audience.
However, data also suggest some journalists still feel uncomfortable about engaging with commenters in this way, for fear it breaches the journalistic norm of objectivity.
A number of those interviewed expressed this uncertainty over their gatekeeping role: “I’m not the Facebook police” and “I’m not a First Amendment cop” – said two journalists explaining their resistance to intervene in what they perceive as a public and open space.
Polite interaction is more effective
Another study, by Marc Ziegele and Pablo B. Jost, of Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany, examined the various ways journalists interact with reader comments for their paper: Not funny? The effects of factual versus sarcastic journalistic responses to uncivil user comments.
The researchers conducted a web-based experiment aimed at developing realistic recommendations concerning the use of interactive journalistic moderation. The findings suggest that the presence of a journalist as moderator in the comments sections is not enough to stimulate a more constructive discussion.
While interactive moderation of uncivil comments can have positive effects, when the news outlet used sarcasm to expose an uncivil commenter’s behaviour as inappropriate, more damage was done than when the uncivil comment was left unmoderated.
On the contrary, whenever the news organisation responded to uncivil commenters in a factual and polite manner there was a perception of a more deliberative discussion atmosphere.
When readers moderate readers
A third study, conducted by myself, found that readers generally view online comments about news items very negatively. The study also found that when readers are invited to moderate comments by other readers, it can create undesirable power relationships among readers.
Público, one of Portugal’s most prominent daily newspapers, decided to move to a collaborative moderation (where users moderate user comments) in 2012. Depending on how many points they gained or lost, users were classified as “beginners”, “influent”, “experienced” and ultimately “moderators”, sharing the moderation role with the community manager of the newspaper.
Before introducing this system in 2012, Público had a team of editors and journalists who assessed comments before publication. Before that, until March 2011, readers’ comments were automatically published without being moderated.
These experiments in moderation strategies are certainly not exclusive to Público, as newsrooms all over the world are trying to cope with the tension between freedom of expression and protection from abusive comments.
To assess the effectiveness of the collaborate moderation system and also to understand readers’ perspectives on comments, I closely examined a comment thread on a news article published in the press and online version of the newspaper on November 16th, 2013.
The article itself was about online comments, namely moderation practices. It provided a unique opportunity to examine readers’ viewpoints towards this discussion forum.
Readers favour editorial intervention over community moderation
Analysis of the 90 valid comments posted at the bottom of the article by readers revealed that most users addressed the “darker side” of online comments. Although accepting some positive aspects to comments (namely the extension of opinion pluralism and public debate, or added value to journalism), the majority of the readers discussed the negative aspects – particularly in regard to trolling and a commenter’s perceived desire to be in the limelight.
Aggressiveness, the violation of publication norms or the low quality of the posts in general were also raised as issues of concern by readers, the study revealed.
Reader “moderators” (readers that accumulate enough prestige points in order to manage other users’ comments) were also viewed with suspicion. Commenters described their behaviour as ‘arrogant’ and criticised them for arbitrary judgement and/or bad interpretation of publication norms.
Some participants even labeled the moderators’ management as “censorship” (using this word or associated words, such as ‘dictatorship’ or ‘blue pencil’).
It was interesting to note that some users in the comment thread studied implicitly proposed a more active and engaged role for the newspaper in the online news comments management.
Ziegele, M.; Jost, P. B. (2016). “Not funny? The effects of factual versus sarcastic journalistic responses to uncivil user comments”. Communication Research, online first: 1-30.
Chen, G. M.; Pain, P. (2016). “Normalizing online comments”. Journalism Practice, online first: 1-17.
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