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Nov. 2, 2018, 11:08 a.m.

If you let commenters go after your reporters, it hurts your credibility with other readers

The bright side (?): Women don’t seem to face a higher credibility penalty from a mean comment than men do.

Newsrooms: When you let your readers attack your reporters in the comments — U R SO BIAS YOU STUPID LIBTARD #FAKENEWS — does it impact your journalists’ credibility in the eyes of other readers? How about your organization’s credibility?

Yep and yep.

But at least it’s not worse for your female journalists than for your male ones — attacks in the comments hurt everybody’s perceived credibility.

That’s the finding of a new paper out this week in Information, Communication & Society by LSU’s Kathleen Searles, Augusta University’s Sophie Spencer, and Louisiana-Monroe’s Adaobi Duru.

There is now a broad base of scholarly evidence (and an even broader base of anecdotal evidence) that women publishing online tend to face more abuse than men — whether they’re reporters, bloggers, or social media users. So the researchers were initially interested in seeing if that disproportionate abuse would lead to a disproportionate impact on female journalists’ perceived credibility — as well as whether that impact would also extend to the news site hosting the content. Emphases mine:

To answer these questions, we employed a survey experiment which manipulated exposure to an abusive comment, and author gender. We found a significant effect for the abusive comment on author credibility and intention to seek news from the author and outlet in the future, but gender of the author did not moderate these effects. To ensure the null effects for gender were not an artifact of comment or topic, we fielded two additional survey experiments. Across topics, whether the abuse was gendered or gender-specific, we found abusive comments exert significant negative effects on evaluations, regardless of author gender. Our results have implications for news organizations considering comments.

So on an individual comment basis, an abusive comment about a female reporter doesn’t hurt her credibility more than an abusive comment about a male reporter does his. (To be sure, the fact that women are more likely to face commenter nastiness means that, on net, abusive comments online likely have a greater total negative impact on women than on men.)

While newsrooms may be heartened to hear that abusive comments are not affecting perceptions of women, these results should still give outlets pause. Across three studies we found that abusive comments penalized journalists. These results suggest that adopting guidelines for flagging abusive comments, much like The New York Times, may help mitigate these penalties.

An aside: I feel it necessary to share the amazing abusive comment Searles et al. used in the first of their studies. They were specifically looking for a comment that would be (a) gender neutral, (b) clearly attacking the author, but (c) not partisan or offensive. They picked this one from a real Washington Post story: “More verbal flatulence from a known prevaricator. Mendacity on a galactic scale. It’s hard to fathom why or how anyone can be sucked into this cesspool of ignorance and self-aggrandizing fantasy.” Confession: I’d be flattered to receive that quality of mean comment, and I’d imagine the man (definitely a man) behind it hitting “Submit” and then retiring to a leather club chair, a snifter of brandy swirling in his hand and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy on his side table.

The authors note that, while their later studies ramped up the gendered nature of the comments, it’s possible there’d be a differentiated effect for women if they’d gone even farther: “[Perhaps] gendered insults are not sufficient to indicate the violation of social expectations. Threats of physical or sexual violence may have a different effect, and sadly, anecdotal and observational data recount, such abuse is not uncommon. It may also be that the volume of comments is important. While not within the scope of this paper, we encourage follow-up studies to investigate this possibility.”

Cartoon via XKCD

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Nov. 2, 2018, 11:08 a.m.
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