Journalists, get thee to the comments

“A journalist’s job, at its very essence, is to explain to the public what’s going on. If the public is learning that through comments, journalists must be part of that discussion.”

My prediction for 2016 has little to do with technology and everything to do with how people get their news.

gina-chenMy prediction — or maybe it’s a hope — is that news organizations (finally) harness the power of the online conversation. Since comments sprung up on news stories more than a decade ago, journalists have struggled with how to tame them. First, we were just happy (and a bit astonished) than anyone cared to comment on our stories. Any comment was considered a boon; it meant more pageviews and clicks.

Then the comments took a downward turn, all too often turning into cesspools of racism, sexism, stereotypes, and hate. News organizations turned off comments, moderated them heavily, or suggested online engagement move to social media — Twitter and Facebook — with hopes this would produce a less nasty debate. The truth is comment streams at many news sites still paint a picture of the American public that few would cherish.

I submit that this is the year we really get a handle on comments. First, there are some hard truths. As journalists, we wish and hope that people read the story and then comment. But often that does not seem to be the case. I spend a lot of time reading news comments, and it is often clear that those spewing vitriol haven’t read the story in question. News has become the conversation around the news in a sense. We find out what’s going from what others are saying about the news on comments streams, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Reddit. The conversation about the news in many ways has become a new version of the news for many people.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I believe these conversations — even when tainted by incivility — are still important to our understanding of news. It’s a good thing that people have opinions and want to share them. It’s a good thing that people still care about what’s in the news. One of the most enduring beliefs in our country is that everyone should have a chance to speak about the important topics of the day.

The nastiness is an artifact of this conversation — not a reason to get rid of the conversations completely.

But we do need to make more progress ensuring these conservations offer true deliberation and debate — not just name-calling and profanity. Moderating helps, for sure, as does requiring people to use real names. Research has found that anonymity in commenting is linked to greater likelihood of incivility. We also know that civility breeds civility in online conversations. People reading a civil discourse, are more likely to be civil.

We also know that when journalists — particularly those whom the public recognizes — get engaged in the comment streams, a higher level of discussion can result. In essence, the research suggests that when a civil tone is set for a conversation, a more civil discussion results.

What I’m suggesting goes beyond mere moderating when a reader flags a comment as inappropriate. I’m suggesting that journalists must become invested and part of the online discussions about the news. Certainly many do this now, but undoubtedly many feel it’s out of the scope of their jobs or presents a conflict of interest — or that it’s just too time-consuming. We cannot afford that view any longer. A journalist’s job, at its very essence, is to explain to the public what’s going on. If the public is learning that through comments, journalists must be part of that discussion.

Journalists need to play the role of host at the digital party, setting a tone for these conservations, which are too important to ignore. In other words, let 2016 be the year we attack the problem of online incivility by fostering civil discourse — rather than by fighting to silence the uncivil.

Gina Masullo Chen is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin.