Comment sections on news websites spark much controversy. Do they provide a space for civil discussion or are they just hotbeds of incivility? For this study, we report on what more than 12,000 people[i] told us about comment sections on 20 different news sites. Participating sites include news outlets from across the U.S. and several kinds of media (print, television, radio, and online-only). This project was funded by The Coral Project, a collaboration between The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Mozilla that is supported by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The categories of questions we sought to answer include:
- Do people want journalists to interact in news comment sections?
- Do people think that news comment sections are civil?
- Do commenters feel connected to other commenters?
- How frequently do people comment?
- Do people know about comment section features, such as the ability to flag offensive comments?
- On which types of stories do people comment?
- Why do people comment?
- How easy do people think that comment sections are to navigate?
- Are there differences across news organizations depending on their size?
Results show that sometimes perceptions differ across sites, but in other instances, perceptions are remarkably consistent. The following sites participated: Alaska Dispatch News, AL.com, The Arizona Republic, The Atlantic, Civil Beat, The Dallas Morning News, Deseret News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KXAN, PBS NewsHour, Philly.com, The Seattle Times, Southern California Public Radio/KPCC, The State Journal-Register, The Texas Tribune, TribLIVE, Twincities.com / St. Paul Pioneer Press, Voice of San Diego, The Washington Post, and Willamette Week.
Study findings include:
- Preferences for news comment sections are fairly uniform across news sites. For example, around three-quarters want journalists to clarify factual questions, and experts to respond to comments.
- Perceptions of the civility of news comment sections vary widely by site. Between 14% and 78% of respondents per site rate the comments on the site very or somewhat civil.
- Fewer than half of respondents on any news site feel connected to other commenters.
- 62% think that they can report offensive comments, although it is possible on all sites.
- For two large sites, more than 50% of respondents comment on the site weekly or more frequently. For all of the other sites, fewer than half of the commenters comment weekly or more often.
- Those commenting on larger sites are more likely to be commenting on U.S. politics/domestic policy and international news. Those commenting on smaller sites are more likely to be commenting on state government or their neighborhood/local community.
- For most sites, the most common reason that people comment is to express an emotion or opinion.
- Most commenters across all sites find comment sections easy to navigate. Yet just under half per site, on average, say that it is easy to sort the comments.
Preferences for News Comment Sections
We asked respondents whether journalists should clarify questions, actively contribute, or direct the conversation; whether experts should respond to comments; whether newsrooms should highlight quality comments; and whether people should be allowed to post anonymously.
In general, the responses were fairly consistent across news sites.
- Around three-quarters want journalists to clarify factual questions and experts to respond to comments.
- Just over half want journalists to actively contribute and just under half want newsrooms to highlight quality comments.
- Approximately a third want sites to allow anonymous posting and a similar percentage want journalists to direct the conversation.
Journalists Clarifying Factual Questions
On average, 81% of survey respondents at each news site would like it if journalists clarified factual questions in the comment section. Across the news sites, the percentage varies between 71% and 87%.
Percentage Wanting Journalists to Clarify Factual Questions in Comment Sections by News Site
Experts in the Comment Section
Well over a majority of respondents show a preference for experts responding to comments in the comment section. On average, 73% of survey respondents at each news site would like it if experts on the topic of the article responded. This percentage varied between 61% and 82% across the news sites.
Percentage Wanting Experts to Respond to Comments by News Site
Journalists Actively Contributing to Comment Sections
Close to a majority of survey respondents at each news site, an average of 58%, would like it if journalists actively contributed to comment sections. Variance across the news sites is between 51% and 68%.
Percentage Wanting Journalists to Actively Contribute to Comment Sections by News Site
There are statistically meaningful and notable differences across commenters, comment readers, and those who neither comment nor read comments in their preferences for journalists actively contributing to news comment sections. Sixty-one percent of commenters would like journalists to actively contribute compared to 56% of those who read comments and 50% of those who do neither.
Highlighting Strong Comments
Fewer than half of respondents at each news site, 42% on average, would like it if journalists highlighted quality comments in comment sections. Respondents at only one site exceeded 50% in wanting news organizations to highlight quality comments. At all other outlets, the percentage agreeing strongly or somewhat fell between 34% and 48%.
Percentage Wanting News Organizations to Highlight the Highest Quality Comments by News Site
A third, 33% of survey respondents at each news site on average, would like it if journalists allowed people to comment anonymously. This percentage varies between 20% and 49% across sites.
Percentage Wanting News Comment Sections to Allow Anonymous Commenting by News Site
There are statistically meaningful and notable differences across commenters, comment readers, and those who do neither in their preferences for anonymity. Thirty-six percent of commenters would like comment sections to allow anonymity compared to 27% of those who read comments and 25% of those who neither read comments nor comment.
We also examined whether preferences for anonymity varied based on the platform used for the comment section. Those commenting on a site using Facebook were more supportive of anonymous commenting compared to those using other platforms. Forty percent of those commenting on a site using Facebook agreed strongly or somewhat that they would like it if news comment sections allowed anonymity. This is compared to 30% of those using Disqus, 29% of those using Livefyre, and 29% of those using Civil Comments.[ii]
Journalists Directing the Conversation
On average, 33% of survey respondents at each news site would like it if journalists directed the conversation in comment sections. Across the news sites, the percentage varies between 21% and 44%.
Percentage Wanting Journalists to Direct the Conversation in Comment Sections by News Site
We analyzed what predicts holding beliefs about journalists and experts getting involved in news comment sections. The one factor that consistently matters is how much survey respondents trust in the news organization.[iii] The more people trust a news organization, the more they want journalists to clarify questions, actively contribute, and direct the conversation. The higher the trust, the more people want experts to respond to comments and newsrooms to highlight quality comments.
In only one instance does the opposite relationship appear: the more people trust a news outlet, the less they want to comment anonymously.
Preferences for News Comment Sections by Trust in News Site
Perceptions of Civility Across News Sites
We asked respondents to tell us how civil, or uncivil, they find the comments. There is a great deal of variability in how commenters rate the civility of each site. On average, 44% of commenters per news site say that the comment section is “somewhat civil” or “very civil.” This ranges from 14% to 78%.
There’s a modest relationship between site size and perceptions of civility. In general, smaller sites are rated as more civil. This relationship is not absolute, however. As shown in the chart below, some small sites are seen as equally uncivil as some medium and large sites.
Percentage Finding Comments Very or Somewhat Civil by News Site
Civility by Commenting Behavior
We analyzed what sort of people see the comment section as civil.
How often an individual comments relates to how much civility they perceive in the comment section. The more frequently people comment, the more civility they perceive.
Percentage Finding Comments Civil by Commenting Frequency
Perceptions of civility are also related to whether people comment on another site, what we’re calling “exclusive commenting.” Those who comment exclusively on the news site for which they were surveyed perceive more civility than those who also comment on other sites.
Fifty-one percent of those who are not exclusive commenters see the space as somewhat or very uncivil; 42% of exclusive commenters feel the same.
Perceptions of Civility by Exclusive Commenting
|Not exclusive commenter||Exclusive commenter|
|Very or somewhat uncivil||51%||42%|
|Neither civil nor uncivil||12%||13%|
|Very or somewhat civil||38%||45%|
Notes: Columns do not total to 100% due to rounding. Question wording for exclusive commenting: “Do you read comments on news sites other than [news site]?” Question wording for civility: “How civil or uncivil do you think that the comments are on [news site]?” Results reported only for those who leave comments on each site, n=6,790.
Civility by Commenting Features
Perceptions of civility also vary by what features people believe are available in the comment section (note that these are people’s beliefs, not whether the features are actually available). Those who believe people can post anonymously perceive less civility than those who believe anonymity is not an option.
Those who believe articles regularly receive fewer than 20 comments see the comment section as more civil than those who believe articles on the site regularly receive more than 20 comments.
Finally, those who know that you can report offensive comments see the comment section as less civil than those who do not know that this is an option.
Perceptions of Civility by Beliefs About Comment Section
These are perceptions, however, and not whether the space actually allows anonymous commenting, whether the articles regularly receive more than 20 comments, or whether sites allow people to report offensive comments.
We can get a better handle on whether anonymity, or the lack thereof, corresponds with civility by looking at the platform used. Facebook comments, for instance, are less anonymous than many other platforms. Yet there are no differences between perceptions of civility for those using Facebook and those using other platforms. Forty-one percent of those commenting on a site using Facebook say that the comments are somewhat or very civil. Forty percent of those on other sites report the same.
We asked the news staff at each organization to tell us whether their articles regularly receive 20 comments per article or more. Those commenting on sites regularly receiving more than 20 comments per article perceive the space as less civil. Forty-seven percent of those commenting on sites receiving more than 20 comments per article see the space as uncivil compared to 39% of those commenting on sites receiving fewer comments. The more comments, the less civility perceived.
Finally, all of the news organizations included in this study provide a way for people to report offensive comments. Those who knew this saw the comment section as less civil. One explanation for this finding could be that those who have reported a comment as offensive are both more likely to know about the option and to see the space as uncivil.
Civility by Trust and Staff Reports
Trust relates to perceptions of civility. Those who trust the news organization more see the comment section as more civil than those who trust the organization less.
We also asked news staff from each organization to tell us how civil they thought that the comment section is. There is a strong correspondence between the two – the more civil the staff member thinks the site is, the more civil the commenters think the space is.[iv]
[i] In total, 18,729 people clicked to begin the survey and 9,575 completed the entire survey. We use all available data for each question, reporting the sample size beneath each table.
[ii] We exclude commenting systems for which we did not have data from more than one news site from this analysis.
[iii] We asked survey respondents to indicate how much of the time they thought they could trust the news organization to report the news fairly. Across all the organizations, 32% said just about always, 44% most of the time, 20% only some of the time, and 4% none of the time. There was variability by news organization. Between 10% and 71% per organization said that they could trust the news just about always.
[iv] The correlation between news staff reports and commenter ratings of civility (n=20) is 0.63.