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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Comment sections aren’t dead (yet)

March 5, 2020 | By Kasia Kovacs – Independent Journalist @kasiakovacs

Comments for news organizations’ digital publications took a blow when NPR closed its online comments section in 2016. Even before NPR’s monumental decision, other organizations including The Verge, Reuters, and Recode had also bid adieu to online comments. The feature was increasingly viewed as an incubator for name-calling, insults, and sometimes harassment. And the trend continues. In just the past year, USA Today and OregonLive added their names to the growing list of news outlets that have had enough of supervising online trolls and bots.

Comments definitely don’t always bring out the best in people. Some commenters use the shield of anonymity to share derogatory and abusive messages, communicate hate toward certain racial groups, or turn a constructive discussion into a name-calling match. And negative comments can even influence readers to have a more unfavorable view of the story itself.

Some national and regional newsrooms have employed comment moderators, but monitoring thousands of comments requires considerable labor. The task of deleting uncivil comments oy leads to emotional exhaustion for the moderators. However it turns out that deleting the litany of racist, sexist, and hompophobic comments also decreases trust in the news organization, according to a 2019 Center for Media Engagement study. While comments sections once held the promise of democratizing news discussions, that optimism seems to have backfired.

The death of comments may be exaggerated 

Is this the beginning of a slow dive into obsolescence for comment sections?

Coral helps moderators identify disruptive comments and surface the best submissions.

Not necessarily. Despite the woeful forecast from some commentators about the death of comments sections, experts who study reader engagement warn critics against hasty obituaries. The number of news organizations that have done away with comments sections do not represent the industry as a whole, says Andrew Losowsky, head of Coral by Vox Media, a system that aims to bring publishers and journalists closer to their communities. 

In fact, comments sections can bring great value that often goes overlooked. Done right, comments sections can increase reader loyalty and engagement, and even boost subscriptions. Simply deleting comments sections, Losowsky says, makes sense when those sections turn into vitriolic spaces. But he says this move can also be  “incredibly short-sighted.”

The key for news organizations is to develop a strategy. News outlets should think of their comments sections more deliberately. The need to ask questions like: What does it mean to involve people in the conversation? And, what sort of conversations do news organizations want to foster? From there, news organizations can ask pointed questions for readers to answer in the comments sections.

Managing the unmanageable

One way to make handling the volume of comments more manageable is by implementing artificial intelligence to help with the task of comment moderation. The New York Times is one outlet that actually expanded its comments section in 2017, with a machine learning technology called Moderator, which helps to moderate up to 12,000 comments a day. The technology scores each comment based on whether a human staffer might reject it based on inflammatory or inappropriate behavior. It then decides whether to keep or delete the comment based on that score.

Local news organizations, however, often lack the resources of larger sites. With revenues falling for smaller outlets, securing funding to implement a comments moderation system — much less hiring an employee specifically to moderate comments — might land quite far down the priority list.

Innovating with engagement

The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina has found that its Coral commenters are more engaged.

That doesn’t mean some local news sites aren’t experimenting with their own initiatives, though. The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, which has a daily readership of around 270,000, implemented Coral about nine months ago. The platform uses AI to detect and remove toxic comments. Commenters at The State also need to sign into and register their email addresses to Coral separately from their subscriptions. This means that Coral users tend to be more engaged.

“We still see some of the bluster and posturing that can be negative in comments. But by and large, the comments that we do get are a lot more focused on the actual story,” said Cal Lundmark, southeast audience growth editor for McClatchy.

In addition to more constructive comments, general engagement on The State’s website flourished for Coral users. Active Coral commenters read twice as many stories on The State’s website per visit compared to other subscribers.These visitors spend almost 16 minutes longer on the site per visit as well.

Interaction breeds civility

When journalists interact with commenters, they can actually encourage civility in the comments sections, according to a report from the Democracy Fund and the Engaging News Project, now known as the Center for Media Engagement. The study found that journalists who answer reader questions and participate in discussions make the tone of comments sections more constructive.

It is effective even when local reporters only have enough time to dip into the comments sections rather than engage regularly. It “creates a sort of bond between the reader and the news organization, where people feel less okay to say nasty things,” says Gina M. Masullo, associate director of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

Reporters at The State have been doing exactly this as part of the recent initiative to re-strategize the comments section. “The time in their day when they can really just stop and say ‘I can respond to some comments’ is pretty limited,” Lundmark said. “So it does take teamwork… between the audience team and the reporters themselves.”

In addition, news organizations can benefit from highly “person-centered” messages, according to Masullo’s research at the Center. These are comments from journalists that acknowledge a commenter’s anger, but also ask the commenter to keep their language civil.

“It worked across three different experiments that we did,” Masullo said. “I think it’s because even people who are angry like when somebody validates that they have a right to be angry.”

Social media, mediated

For the news organizations that have deleted comments sections over the past few years, engaging with their audiences is far from dead. In its one year update after doing away with its comments sections, NPR’s public editor Elizabeth Jensen declared the move a success.  She cited other ways of communicating with readers such as newsletters as garnering more attention. Journalists respond to readers and listeners through social media channels like Twitter and Facebook, Jensen wrote, and discussions also remain civil in closed Facebook groups.

Plus, it makes sense to take the conversation to social media if the community already regularly engages there, says Lynn Walsh, assistant director of Trusting News.

“We have to be realistic: Are people going to log into the website to comment when they may not already be engaging there actively?” Wash said. So, maybe “we should reach people by going to where they already are instead of asking them to come to us.”

But Losowsky warns against relying too much on social media to foster discussion.

“What you’re saying is that your engagement with your most loyal and engaged users belongs to a third party that you cannot control. And that data and that relationship belongs to them,” Losowsky said. “So if you say instead we will let Facebook manage this, then Facebook owns that relationship with your readers. You do not own it, they do. And they control it.”

Positive comments

So what does the future hold for comments and will news organizations abandon comments sections while reaching out to readers on other channels? Or will they attempt to take on the challenge of molding comments sections into places for constructive feedback?

Research continues to explore how to make comments sections into constructive spaces. Maite Taboada at Simon Fraser University, for instance, is working on a system to identify constructive comments that news organizations can highlight to create civil dialogue. And innovative organizations like Hearken develop different ways to tune into to readers and commenters, in addition to making listening to communities a fundamental directive in the reporting process.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we will make the internet a better space,” Masullo said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s gonna be a combination of human and technological solutions. But I don’t think we should just say, ‘oh you know, this is a dismal mess and there’s no hope.’ Because I really think there is.”

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