Research

Journalist Involvement in Comment Sections

Summary

Incivility can run rampant in online comment sections. From a democratic angle, incivility on news sites creates reasons for concern. Social science research finds that incivility in the news depresses trust in government institutions.1 Even more, incivility in comment sections can affect readers’ beliefs. Calling this the “nasty effect,” University of Wisconsin Professors Brossard and Scheufele find that uncivil reader comments can change what people think about the news itself.2

From a business angle, some news staff members worry that incivility-laced comment sections can damage their reputation and can harm the overall news brand.3  Although news organizations can employ moderators to remove uncivil comments from these online forums, the practice can be both time-consuming and expensive.

With this in mind, we conducted two field studies with media partners to examine what happens when journalists take a more active role in comment sections. We analyze whether posing questions to commenters can affect incivility and how long site visitors spend on a webpage. We also examine whether the presence of a reporter affects the tenor of the discussion.

Our results demonstrate that a reporter interacting with commenters can improve the civility of the comments. Asking closed-ended questions also promotes greater civility. Finally, we have suggestive evidence that asking questions can increase time on page, but this finding requires additional research. As we summarize below, our results provide real-world guidance for newsrooms.

 

Recommended Practices

To Reduce Uncivil Comments:

Ask site visitors a question about the news content with only a few response options. For example:

  • Do you think the new proposal is a good idea or a bad idea?
  • Do you agree with the new bill or not?
  • Should we increase taxes or decrease spending?

Have a reporter visit with people in the comment section, using the following techniques to spark conversation and highlight productive comments:

  • Answer legitimate questions from commenters (e.g. “Good question, Mandy.”)
  • Ask questions of commenters (e.g. “What are your thoughts on that?”)
  • Provide additional information (e.g. “Here’s a link to the bill text.”)
  • Encourage and highlight good discussion (e.g. “Tom, you bring up something interesting.”)

To Increase Time on Page:

Our results are suggestive that asking site visitors a question prior to the comment section can increase time on page, but this results requires more study with a larger sample.

To see the full report, please download the full PDF here.

  1. Mutz, D. C., & Reeves, B. (2005). The new videomalaise: Effects of televised incivility on political trust. American Political Science Review, 99, 1-15.
  2. Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. (2013, March 2). This story stinks. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/opinion/sunday/this-story-stinks.html?_r=0; Anderson, A. A., Brossard, D., Scheufele, D. A., Xenos, M. A., & Ladwig, P. (forthcoming). The “nasty effect:” Online incivility and risk perceptions of emerging technologies. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
  3. Singer, J. B., & Ashman, I. (2009). “Comment is free, but facts are sacred:” User-generated content and ethical constructs at the Guardian. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 24, 3-21. See also Hermida, A., & Thurman, N. (2008). A clash of cultures: The integration of user-generated content within professional journalistic frameworks at British newspaper websites. Journalism Practice, 2, 343-356.

Researchers

Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud

Ashley Muddiman

Josh Scacco headshot

Joshua Scacco

Alex Curry

Cynthia Peacock