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June 24, 2015, 11 a.m.

Can comment sections contain (gasp!) rational, coherent, civil debate? Maybe? Sometimes?

This new study uses old data, but it gives at least some hope that comment sections might not always be as awful as the reporters writing the stories above them think.

Is it possible comment sections aren’t as terrible as many journalists believe? That’s the argument of a new study, “A Tale of Two Stories from “Below the Line”: Comment Fields at the Guardian,” just published in the July issue of The International Journal of Press/Politics.

Of course, in the slow-moving world of academia, a “new” study may not cover particularly “new” ground. This one — by Todd Graham of the University of Groningen and Scott Wright of the University of Melbourne — looks at the comments on 85 articles focusing on the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen on the U.K. version of the The Guardian’s website. So yes, we’re talking about nearly six-year-old comments. But commenting behavior must, in some sense, be eternal, no? Graham and Wright also interviewed journalists who authored some of the selected articles and some of the site’s “supercommenters.”

Broadly speaking, the study looked to identify and qualify the types of debate in the comments, as well as to test conventional wisdom around comment threads. Often tagged as being abusive — the internet maxim “never read the comments” gets tossed around — the study looked to identify just what was going on. That’s because, as the study notes, comment threads could be both an important source of information and a business opportunity for publishers.

To date, research has focused on journalists’ perceptions, and these are not so welcoming. Journalists typically describe comments as being offensive, poor in quality, untrustworthy, and unrepresentative of the public…But are these perceptions an accurate account of what is taking place in comment fields? First, few empirical studies have analyzed how audiences actually behave in comment fields: what is the nature of debate that occurs? Do they constitute a deliberative public sphere? Second, do below the line comments enhance or inhibit the professional practices of journalists as they go about their work? More broadly, are they improving the quality of news products, journalism, and ultimately the public sphere?…

Comment fields allow audiences to discuss news content with each other and with journalists. They also potentially provide opportunities for journalists to reflect on their writing, test arguments in the case of commentary pieces, receive feedback on stories, and can be a source for new leads. More prosaically, comment fields are considered an important source of revenue by building a loyal and engaged community (that might also become a paying member at the Guardian), giving enhanced metadata that can increase advertising revenue, and increasing visibility in search engines by keeping the Web site “hot.”

Why the U.N. Climate Change Summit? Because nothing stirs up debate like global warming:

We chose this topic because climate change is a contentious area of debate that normally provokes significant discussion; it was the biggest news story when the data were collected; it encompassed a range of news fields; and it had a specific time frame so we could capture most, if not all, of the news cycle.

And why The Guardian? The study identified the U.K. paper as a relatively open and experimental newsroom. Moreover, in 2009, The Guardian was beginning to invest in the possibility of “below-the-line” engagement:

…the content analysis was conducted just as the Guardian began to invest resources into comment fields (which in part happened in response to problems during the “Climategate” period), and our analysis predates the introduction of threading, which has allowed users to reply to each other rather than displaying debates chronologically. Articles and blog posts on the Guardian Web site that received at least one comment and were published on the odd days of the conference (including the day before and after — eight days in total) were selected for analysis. After applying these criteria, the sample consisted of eighty-five articles (twenty-four were blog posts), written by forty-seven journalists/commentators containing 3,792 comments/posts.

Without including comments found on Comment is Free pieces, the study found that most of the comments (67 percent overall) were used to debate, or just argue — something the study termed “exchange of claims.” However, of these, nearly 50 percent of all comments (and nearly 70 percent of those that were arguing a point) used reason while writing. On the other end, 20 percent of the comments were claims with no proof offered to back them. Overwhelmingly, comments were on topic (96 percent), and those that asked questions (7 percent) found them answered (11 percent of all comments). While overall, the study found that around 12 percent of comments were abusive, it also saw 6 percent of comments giving praise and recognition to others reaching out.

Is there hope, though, for the dream that comments can be the bridge between readers and journalists? Unlikely: Although 16 percent of the comments were directed at journalists, there were only 12 total responses posted by six Guardian journalists. Moreover, in those 12 comments, journalists didn’t really debate — they asked for more information or thanked the readers for new sources or broken links.

Journalists who were interviewed for the study said they saw comments as a possible story lead and a democratizer. While few admitted to having taken a tip or getting an expert from the comments, many said they’d received significant help finding source material for an existing story. Moreover, there was a belief that despite the ubiquity of social media, getting in touch with both experts and journalists is harder than it used to be. Said one unnamed journalist: “It is harder to make direct contact with people than it used to be. You tend to have to go through press officers. The civil servant will no longer answer the phone; he will put you back to their press office. So, in other words, information is much more tightly controlled than before. The web, and the comments on the bottom of pieces, makes up for some of that.”

With the rise of “the people formally known as the audience,” there was a belief that readers would change journalism through their participation in its production. Is that happening according to this study?

The increased scrutiny was generally considered to have led to stronger, more rigorous working practices:

“Everything that a reporter writes can be — often immediately — verified or checked, externally by the audience. And that is an extraordinary experience for most journalists…everything that I write now, I have to be absolutely bloody certain that I can verify it. And so the story is actually the tip of an iceberg, and below the surface I will have files of tens of megabytes of, of files — you know — the original source document, the press notice, the PA copy, the BBC copy.”

All this leads to a rather rosy picture of comments — at least in comparison to the usual doomsaying. Of course, the commenting environment has changed in many ways from 2009. Social media is far more important as an outlet for story comment and journalist critique than it used to be. And it’s become increasingly common for news sites to shut off their comment sections entirely — or, if not, to farm them out to Facebook.

The paper is also an interesting time capsule of sorts into The Guardian’s earlier days in Internet commentry. Since then, The Guardian has continued to aggressively expand into new ways to engage, bringing new ideas and increased muscle to the debate. This week, assistant editor and audience director for The Guardian U.S. Mary Hamilton announced that she would become The Guardian’s executive editor for audience (and head back to London). Meanwhile, The Guardian continues to employ community moderators and uphold community guidelines, making it one of the less wild comment sections on the internet. Six years on from the original data, it would be interesting to see if the study’s initial observations have remained true.

POSTED     June 24, 2015, 11 a.m.
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