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July 28, 2021, 12:19 p.m.
Audience & Social

“We disagree on what the space should be”: Editors discuss the future of comment sections

What’s the purpose of a comment section?

For many newsrooms, providing a forum for community members to interact — such as in a comment section — is part of their mission. Figuring out how to make these spaces thrive, however, often represents a challenge.

To understand the latest thinking on comment sections, the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin recently hosted a roundtable with Anjanette Delgado, the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press; Bassey Etim, editorial director at CNN; Sona Patel, director of community at The New York Times; Brian Smith, audience growth strategist at the Des Moines Register; and Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn, community editor at The Washington Post.

The conversation revealed ideas for improvement and raised important questions about how news organizations are grappling with the future of comments in their newsrooms. Below are several ideas that emerged during the discussion.

Purpose-based interactions and curated spaces

The purpose of comment sections is not always clear to the public, and without direction, these spaces can become hotbeds of intolerance. Roundtable participants suggested purpose-based interactions, where journalists would engage users in ways that make the point of the interaction clear. This could include:

— Providing a discussion prompt
— Soliciting thoughts about possible reporting topics
— Allowing input to help inform interviews
— Asking users to perform particular roles, such as flagging misinformation.

The idea was that purpose-based interactions could get people to work together toward a common goal and make them feel invested in the space.

Some participants noted that this idea might clash with what people want from a comment section. One participant thought that newsrooms and commenters often aren’t on the same page: “We disagree on what the space should be. We want you to talk about the news, but we don’t want this to be this horrible free-for-all where people can just go at each other for sport. That’s a chat room.” The roundtable participants reasoned that giving people more say, such as having them come up with the decision prompt, might be a middle ground.

Handling misinformation and personal attacks

The spread of misinformation was a major concern. As one participant noted, “I think people view our sites as a credible place and so they want to attach that misinformation there because they think it will reach people in a different way. I think we definitely have a lot of vulnerabilities.” Another described efforts to remove conspiracy theories and false claims from comment sections prior to the 2020 election as “madness.”

Dealing with bad-faith actors in the space also proved time-consuming. One panelist described problems with racial issues in the comments, “It kind of became a game of ‘whack-a-troll.’ Any time we even just moderated a comment, a new account would pop up to pick up where that conversation left off and it became very abundantly clear that it was the same person doing this.” As the newsroom worked on handling the situation, other commenters reached out, demanding that the troll problem be addressed. The situation resonated with research showing that uncivil comments can hurt a newsroom’s overall brand.

When discussing possible solutions, participants debated the benefits of giving some superusers more weight when flagging comments, which could help with moderation. Another tool that could prove useful is one that allows newsrooms to track people who are unreliable flaggers.

Moderator pipelines

One of the panelists lamented the lack of career pathways for comment moderators. In general, this role doesn’t always lead to roles in other parts of the newsroom. One participant said, “The question that we’re asking ourselves is, if we have these moderators who are responsible for comment moderation on a daily basis and we want to maybe open up more articles for comments, but we also want them to do other work outside of comment moderation, so maybe it’s reader-sourced reporting or whatever other kind of community-driven projects, how do we free up their time to work on those projects but also keep up our moderation standards?” Diversifying the moderating task, our research suggests, can help fight emotional exhaustion and improve the moderation.

Measuring value

Determining the value comment sections bring to a news organization ranked as a top concern, especially because comments require heavy investment in both technology and moderation resources. Our research suggests that comments benefit both newsrooms and site users — and that turning the comments off can make the experience worse for loyal commenters and reduce the time users spend on the site.

Though participants agreed that comments have value, they acknowledged that it is sometimes hard to quantify that value, because comments aren’t always assessed using common metrics. In at least one newsroom, comments were featured by the newsroom when they amplified the reporting, as opposed to something contributing to the organization’s bottom line.

One participant said, “We need a lot more investment. But then the problem with getting investment is being able to determine, O.K., what value is it? How do we come up with a number for something that isn’t just pageviews?”

Participants also wanted to figure out the connection between comments and subscriptions. It’s difficult to determine whether comments persuade people to subscribe or revisit, or whether those people would remain loyal no matter what. One participant noted that there are many considerations that feed into a subscription decision: “You really can’t pinpoint it to just one thing. It’s just really hard.”

Some panelists were working on internal tests to find out how to convert commenters to subscribers and saw value in obtaining commenter email addresses as a relationship-building tactic. Live chats were also discussed as an opportunity to grow subscriptions. One participant noted, “We’re seeing that people who register via the live chats convert at a higher rate than people who register on other registration walls we have.”

Diversity, equity, and inclusion

One participant noted that there should be more attention to diversifying moderators, citing the need for diversity when sorting through content on news sites.

Another noted a desire to reach new and more diverse audiences than the loyal commenters or subscribers represent.

Journalist involvement

Part of the value that comment sections provide is allowing journalists to better understand their audiences and to use that knowledge in the reporting process. One roundtable participant shared thoughts on reporters who regularly engaged with commenters: “I feel like it made their reporting better in that they understood how to talk to our audience of subscribers.”

Another participant who moderated comments during the election added, “A lot of those same threads that we saw out there on Parler and MeWe were also popping up in our comment section. I had a greater understanding of the position a good section of our readers were in during that time period.”

Yet journalists often hesitate to get involved. in the comments. One participant said, “When I talk to reporters about being in the comments, there’s this fear of doing that, whereas going out into social media and going to Twitter and tweeting is no big deal.”

The fear of being attacked can make journalists reluctant to participate in comment sections, but there are discussion tactics they can use to interact in ways that spark quality conversation and highlight productive comments. In addition to these approaches, another one of our studies found that acknowledging emotion when responding to comments can lead comment readers to have more positive attitudes about the newsroom and about how the comments were handled.

Creating community in new ways

As newsrooms look to the future of comments, they’re considering ways to improve the experience. As one participant noted, “Overall, I think we have the right values and that comments are a place for readers to respond to us and give us feedback, but I think that even if our values are right, execution is what matters.”

When considering how to expand the comment audience, participants noted that there are many more comment readers than commenters. One participant asked, “When people upvote comments or recommend them or engage in them, is it possible that that has nearly as much impact as writing a comment?” Creating ways to further engage comment readers and measure their involvement could be a new avenue for newsrooms to find value in comments.

Though the roundtable discussion raised many questions about how to move forward with comment sections, it also showed that newsrooms want to invest in comments and see them as beneficial for the community, journalists, and news organizations.

Katalina Deaven is the communications coordinator for the Center for Media Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. Talia Stroud is the center’s director. Gina Masullo is its associate director.

Photo of chattering teeth toy by Wendy used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 28, 2021, 12:19 p.m.
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