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March 14, 2016, 12:12 p.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK: engagingnewsproject.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Shan Wang   |   March 14, 2016

Who’s actually adding to the civil discourse/garbage fire that is the comments section of news sites (the sites that still keep open a place for such reader contributions, at least)?

Fifty-five percent of Americans have posted an online comment and 78 percent have read comments, according to a report released Monday at SXSW by the Engaging News Project out of the University of Texas at Austin. The report also suggests, however, that over half of Americans have never read news-related comments or commented anywhere (dedicated apps, social media, the news sites themselves) about the news. Fourteen percent have left any sort of comments on news stories:

engaging-news-report-news-sites

Of those leaving news comments, the majority posted via social media (77.9 percent), and most (53 percent) posted on a monthly basis or even less frequently.

The report pulls out a few other findings about the demographics of news commenters:

— Compared to those who read news comments but did not themselves comment, those commenting on the news “tend[ed] to be more male, have lower levels of education, and have lower incomes.”

— Compared to those who posted comments on the news infrequently, those who posted comments on the news on a weekly basis (or even more frequently) were similarly “more male, have lower levels of education, and have lower incomes. They [were] are less white and more Hispanic.”

Respondents were asked why they left comments. Responses ran the gamut, but the top reason was “to express an emotion or an opinion,” followed by “adding information,” “correcting inaccuracies or misinformation,” and “taking part in the debate.” These responses varied based on the topic people commented on most frequently:

— Those who commented most on U.S. politics did so to express an emotion or opinion, to take part in the debate, to educate others, and to balance the discussion, compared to those who commented most on stories about their neighborhood or community.

— Those who commented most frequently on news about their neighborhood or community were more likely to comment to share an experience, be part of the community, or show sympathy to others, compared to those who commented most on U.S. politics.

Not surprisingly, the report also found that those who avoided commenting on the news or avoided reading comments on the news felt that comment sections were uncivil and argumentative. But when it came to policing comment sections, the report found an even split between people who believed news organizations should remove offensive comments (42 percent) and those who believed comments constitute free speech (41.6 percent).

The responses to the survey were collected between November and December 2015 by market research group GfK from a “representative sample” of Americans, with complete data from 1,471 respondents. The report breaks out a number of other tidbits around online news commenting, including whether commenters would like journalists/experts to weigh in on facts (yes) and whether they’d be willing to pay for comments (no). The full report is available here.

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