Research suggests that journalists have strong opinions about, and are often critical towards, reader comments. Bergström and Wadbring (2015) carried out a survey of the public’s and journalists’ attitudes towards the comment section of online news outlets and found that while the public generally do not have an opinion, regular commenters and comment readers support this form of reader engagement while journalists, for the large part, “are less positive about the appearance of reader comments in news reporting and more critical of the quality of comments than the average person”. Journalists are keen on censorship – particularly in relation to abusive comments – but are less keen on interacting with their audience in the comment section.
Largest Ever Survey of Reader Comments
Bergström and Wadbring’s research is interesting when contrasted with findings from The Coral Project. Supported by the Knight Foundation, The Coral Project is a collaboration between The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Mozilla. It is the largest ever study of its kind, surveying over 12,000 people who participate in and read the comment sections of twenty different US news sites including the online platforms of several print, television, radio, and online-only organisations. It sought to identify what kind of below the line involvement audiences want from their journalists.
Overall, an average of 58 per cent of survey respondents said they would like to see some kind of journalistic contribution to the comment section. However, active commenters were more positive about this than those who only read comments or those who did not visit the comment section. The more engaged the audience is, the more it wants to see the journalist respond to that engagement – but what kind of involvement is being sought out?
Highlighting Strong Comments
The New York Times and The Guardian are two notable news organisations that pay attention to and place prominence upon what their editorial staff deem to be quality comments. The New York Times, for example, allows readers to filter comments into three categories: all comments, most popular reader comments, and staff picks. Interestingly, just under half of all survey respondents (42%) were in support of this kind of journalistic involvement, perhaps because this is a form of editorial control, something that may be viewed as taking freedom of expression back from a participatory audience.
However, there appears to be a small difference between visitors to large media sites and small to medium platforms: those visiting large sites appeared to be slightly more in favour of editorial highlighting of “strong” comments. More research is no doubt needed to find out why but it could perhaps be due to the higher volume of comments on larger sites or because smaller sites tend to cultivate smaller, more tightly knit commenter communities where external involvement may upset the ecosystem.
Journalists Directing The Conversation
Another form of involvement the survey asked respondents about was the journalistic steering of below the line conversations. Only 33 per cent of respondents were in favour of this idea. Perhaps an explanation lies in the level of trust afforded to news outlets; the more people trust a news outlet, the more they want journalists to get involved in the comment section in some way.
The survey also found that this concept of trust was a two-way street; people also feel different about their fellow commenters depending on how frequently they engage in the comment section themselves. There was a direct correlation between how often an individual commented and how connected they felt to other commenters. The more people comment, the more they feel a sense of community, with 43 per cent of daily commenters feeling connected compared with 17 per cent of those who never comment.
Lessons To Be Learned
A survey of this scale provides the opportunity for journalists, editors and media outlets to understand not only what motivates their audience, but what their audience wants from them. Ploughing in time and journalistic resources into the comment section can be viewed as costly – and futile in the face of online incivility – but it can also be seen as an opportunity to retain the loyalty of an audience in a fragmented media environment.
Read The Coral Project Survey