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June 26, 2013, 4:57 p.m.

With gay marriage sure to spark emotional responses, The Washington Post and New York Times try structuring comments

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, two smart newspapers wanted to break out of the generic comment box.

Back in March, we wrote about a New York Times experiment to add more structure to reader comments on big stories. In that case, the story was the election of Pope Francis; The Times asked readers to notate their responses with whether they were Catholic, whether they were surprised by the appointment, and whether they approved of it. That added structure allowed other readers to view comments through those lenses, putting a filter on what could have been, on another platform, an overwhelming “Read 5,295 comments” link.

Today brought some more big news: the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was unconstitutional. And today both the Times and The Washington Post brought structure to reader response.

First the Post:


The interactive — credited to Katie Park, Leslie Passante, Ryan Kellett, and Masuma Ahuja — steps past the pro-/anti-gay marriage debate and instead asks why readers care: “Why do the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage matter to you?” The given choices — “It engages my moral or religious beliefs,” “It impacts someone I know,” and the like — then provide the raw data for a lovely flower-like Venn-diagram data visualization. (With colors sufficiently muted to avoid immediate rainbow associations.)

The open response question also tries to steer clear of pro/con by asking: “Now, in your own words, use your experience to tell us how these decisions resonate with you.” It’s generated over 2,800 responses at this writing, and you can sort through them all via the structured filters.

Now the Times:


The Times’ interactive was built by Lexi Mainland, Michael Strickland, Scott Blumenthal, John Niedermeyer, and Tyson Evans. They selected six key excerpts from today’s opinions — four from Anthony Kennedy and one each from Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito — and asked readers whether they agree or disagree with each. (There’s also an “unsure” option for those who don’t fancy themselves constitutional scholars.)

Along with that quantifiable response, readers were asked to leave a brief comment explaining their position. The excerpts appear in random order on each load. And, just as the pope experiment separated out responses from Catholics, this Times interactive pulls out comments from people who identify as gay. Like the Post, the Times uses a non-standard call for responses: Rather than responding to a news story, they’re asked to “Respond to the Justices.”

(The responses so far don’t do much to change the stereotype of Times readers as liberal. Justice Kennedy’s four excerpts — from the majority opinion, striking down DOMA — have been agreed with 130 times and disagreed with just four times. In contrast, Scalia and Alito’s pro-DOMA comments are losing Times readers 76 to 7 and 73 to 6, respectively.)

As news organizations try to figure out better ways to benefit from their audiences — ways that go beyond an unstructured “What do you think?” — these efforts from the Post and the Times are welcome. Big stories that generate big emotion deserve custom treatment if you want to get the most of your readers. Comments are just another kind of content, and as content becomes more intelligently structured, comments should follow suit.

POSTED     June 26, 2013, 4:57 p.m.
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