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Can Online Comment Sections Be Dialogue Spaces?

Whether we participate in them or not, online comments sections of news and opinion websites are a venue for great dialogue to take place, but too often, they are vitriolic and unproductive. That’s why we wanted to share a great article from the Illuminations blog run by Journalism That Matters featuring thoughts from a number of experts – including NCDD’s own director, Sandy Heierbacher – on transforming these online spaces. Check out the article below, or find the original here.

Moderation matters for online commenting

Imagine if a newspaper white-washed the side of its building every morning and encouraged strangers to tag it with their response to the day’s news. Now imagine that printed in each edition of this paper is a photo of that wall just before it was painted over again.

Although the experiment might yield interesting results, most of the messages on the wall would probably do little to contribute to the conversation about the news of the day and much of it would be little more than graffiti.

Without moderation, comment sections on news Web sites quickly become like that wall, but real conversations are possible when news organizations invest the time to manually curate their comments and foment discussion.

Managing online comments can be a challenge for any news organization, but as Poynter veteran Butch Ward points out in a recent column, the solutions are simple but are resource intensive.

Which brings us back to those cursed Web comments sections. What can be done to make more of them places for productive debate? Three ideas I hear most often are these:

  • Comments need to be moderated.
  • Comments sections need to be more than fenced-off areas for the public to talk among themselves. They need to be part of a newsroom’s coverage strategy.
  • Reporters and editors need to participate in the conversation.

For starters, moderation. Conversations on websites that moderate comments tend to be more substantial and less venomous. So why aren’t more comments sections moderated? Money, of course. Many newsrooms have decided they don’t have the resources to invest in good comments sections. A few are “deputizing” members of the public to police comments, and the verdict is still out. The others? Well, as my mother would say, you get what you pay for.

The Illuminations Blog previously looked at how newspapers are using services like Disqus and Facebook to require commenters to use their real names. But this low-cost solution pales in comparison to the power of human intervention transforming a discordant sea of ad-hominem attacks into a meaningful forum filled with civil discussions.

Sandy Heierbacher, the Director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, has been looking at civility in online comments and has identified a few local news sites willing to make the investment needed to maintain it. “I think Deseret News is a really interesting example of a newspaper that took charge of the incivility in its comments,” said Heierbacher in an e-mail. “And I really like this gritty 2010 article on wordyard.com, which points out that platforms like The Well have decades of experience with online commenting. It also emphasizes that it’s not just about moderation.”

GirlWithLaptopDeseret News is a newspaper serving the Salt Lake City, Utah, area. Most of the stories on the front page show only a handful of comments, but because the comments must be approved before being posted to the site, it’s unclear how many might be in the queue. The most commented story listed on the front page has 106 published comments, which reveal an incredibly civil discussion over gay marriage – for a newspaper comment section – which I imagine is particularly controversial within the newspaper’s coverage area.

In the wordyard.com article Scott Rosenberg writes that although it isn’t a bad idea to require commenters to use their own names, it’s all but impossible to enforce and won’t prove very effective if the environment has already turned vile.

“Show me a newspaper website without a comments host or moderation plan and I’ll show you a nasty flamepit that no unenforceable ‘use your real name’ policy can save,” writes Rosenberg. “It’s often smarter to just shut down a comments space that’s gone bad, wait a while, and then reopen it when you’ve got a moderation plan ready and have hand-picked some early contributors to set the tone you want.”

The San Francisco Bay Guardian did exactly that last August. The newspaper closed comments for a one-week period and offered an in-person forum as a substitute for the one online. Although the trolls quickly returned, a visit to the site this week reveals a far more civil environment than it seemed to be a few months ago.

“It’s hard to assess what impact my decision to temporarily suspend comments had, but I do feel like it was a shot over the bow of those who use our comments solely to undermine the work we do,” said Editor Steve Jones. “With new leadership at the Guardian, they seemed to realize that they’d lose their forum if they didn’t clean up their acts a little. It didn’t change much, and we are still planning to implement a comment registration system.”

Publisher and Web Editor Marke Bieschke said in an e-mail that he’s increased his efforts to remove comments that violate the site’s policy but also pointed to troll cannibalism as one reason for the increased civility.

“I know a couple of our most notorious trolls seem to have been hounded off the site by other trolls,” said Biescke.

But perhaps if Biescke had the resources to take advantage of Ward’s third point in his Poynter article – reporters and editors need to participate in the conversation – then his staff might have been able to transform the trolls into healthy contributors or at least persuade them to spew their venom elsewhere.

“Talk about a hard sell,” said Ward. “The truth is, most journalists have never been anxious to mix it up with the public. Newspaper editors and reporters for years responded to unhappy readers with one, or both, of these scripted responses: ‘We stand behind our story,’ and ‘Why don’t you write a letter to the editor?'”

Ward goes on to publish an interview he conducted with two journalists from the Financial Times. But one thing that may make comments posted at the Financial Times distinct from those being left on the Bay Guardian’s Web site or most other publications is that the site lives behind a pay-wall making its comments only accessible to paid subscribers. This certainly diminishes the number of trolls, which I’d imagine are already greatly reduced given the site’s specialization.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if general-news sites like the Huffington Post reserved comment privileges to paying members, but I doubt many would pay for that opportunity alone. Without a layer of curation beyond simple moderation, it would be overwhelming for reporters try to engage with the several hundred comments that can pile up on a popular story.

The Verge, a technology news-site based out of New York has somehow inspired its staff to not only engage with the comments on their own articles but also those written by their colleagues, but the site is one of a few exceptions I’ve found.

Gawker Media is another site where its contributors regularly participate in the comments. The threads in which the author has joined the conversation are marked off with a star and the words “Author is participating” are affixed to a banner on the top. The company has also made a concerted effort to elevate reader comments and participation by creating Kinja, a sort of personal publishing platform for Gawker content.

Kinja users are given a URL where they can curate pages from Gawker sites while also compiling any comments posted by the user. The potential for Kinja was revealed in October when Linda Tirado wrote a lengthy comment about poverty that went viral on her Kinja account Killermartinis. That comment eventually generated over $60,000 in donations and a likely-unpaid position as a contributor for the Huffington Post.

While the Huffington Post maintains a line between its contributors and its commenters, it has certainly tapped its audience to contribute and remains a mixture of professionally produced and unpaid content. Sites like the Daily Kos and Buzzfeed have gone even further in incorporating user-generated material into their strategy. Both sites provide a platform for users to generate their own content that they can promote themselves but is also sometimes highlighted alongside the work of their paid staff.

Comments have been a key component to online publishing almost since its inception. For much of that time comment systems have seen little nurture and almost no new development and online conversations have suffered as a result. As more and more attention is paid to rethinking online commenting, new tools are quickly emerging that promise to bring relief to the pains associated with online conversations. But no amount of engineering will ever replace the human resources needed to keep that conversation both civil and engaging.

Roshan Bliss on LinkedinRoshan Bliss on Twitter
Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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  1. I think this is such an important thing for the the NCDD community to be aware of, and I think our community can potentially step into this space and help newspapers transform their comments sections into civil, productive spaces. I’d love to see some discussion about this!

  2. Kim Crowley says:

    I’m excited to see movement on this issue. I think the time is ripe for some type of pilot demonstration project.

  3. […] NCDD Community News » Can Online Comment Sections Be Dialogue Spaces? […]

  4. Adriano says:

    Great article! I will check the websites you mentioned. Italian newspapers are so messy: the spaces they create for readers and for the community are so unproductive, being full of people arguing and posting violent and offensive comments. Moderation is the key – and also the real output of the contributions is a key. Theories and discussions are great: but you have a real impact when online discussions lead to decisions and actions.

    • Interesting point, Adriano, about the importance of online comments leading to decisions or action. I’m not sure I’ve seen that on a newspaper website anywhere, actually — have you seen it? I would argue that newspaper website comment sections would be a great place for people to deepen their understanding of issues, engage with people they don’t agree with, build a sense of community, etc. But I’m not sure sure they need to move to action or a decision in most cases.

  5. Peggy Holman says:

    Glad to see Josh Wolf’s post for the Illuminations blog holds meaning for NCDD folks. The original post was here: http://www.journalismthatmatters.net/moderation_matters_for_online_commenting. Thanks to Sandy for some of her leads and contributions to the story.

  6. Tracy Record says:

    Any news organization that claims it doesn’t have the resources to moderate/police comments is misstating its position – the truth would only be that they are choosing not to prioritize civility in comments.

    We somehow manage to moderate and enforce stringent civility rules while also reporting, researching, and photographing local news 24/7. We are a micro-news organization that has actually won a national award for its comments and commenters – Online News Association’s Online Journalism Award, 2010, “community collaboration.” Comments not only can be dialogue (see this discussion following our post of an elementary class field trip to a nearby historic site), they can bring news from people closer to the scene or the story, and they can bring catharsis … we do not observe the misguided taboo on reporting suicide, when something happens in public view in our area (which includes a tall bridge), and often the victim’s family/friends eventually finds the mention and uses the comment section to pay tribute.

    Last but not least – “real names = civility” is not only unenforceable but is also a myth. We also have a fairly busy Facebook page and I can tell you we’ve seen uglier comments there than on our site, where we support non-real-name commenting by those who choose to do so. We are always sorry to see larger media companies with comment sections resembling, well, sewage, because it means they have chosen to let that happen, rather than being responsible hosts.

    • Thanks so much for posting, Tracy! Can you say more about how you moderate your comments? Do you have a specific comment policy that people have to agree to before they comment, for instance? (And is it something you can share a link to?) Does the moderator approve each comment before it’s posted, or do you go in and remove uncivil or profane comments, etc.? Just curious to hear more about what you do!

  7. My two cents (as shared via the listserv last week):

    As long as “civil discourse” isn’t part of a newspaper’s business model, there’s little likelihood they’ll make the necessary changes or investments (technology, staff time etc.).

    Once the comment section becomes part of the value chain (e.g. when a journalist uses reader input to help her do a better job, or when a media outlet realizes quality discussion gives them a competitive advantage), then there are many options available to create better (more productive, civil etc.) environments.

  8. 1) Newspapers and other commercial media are in the advertising business. Their news content is there to briefly hold people’s interest between advertisements. A comments section defeats that purpose, allowing people to get bogged down in an interesting discussion instead of moving on to the next advertisement. It not only isn’t a valuable part of the business model when functioning well, it is a distraction.

    2) The problem with moderation is not really money. Its ownership. Once you decide what posts are and are not allowed, you own the ones that are allowed. Whatever criteria you use reflects on the newspaper’s values. Do you allow factually inaccurate posts? Do you allow claims of personal knowledge on a subject? If you allow both of these, do you prevent people challenging the source’s reliablility, aka make an ad-homminen attack.

    In short, media sites are always going to be lousy places for a seriou discussion. They don really contribute anything to the business model.

  9. Tracy Record says:

    We’re a commercial media business, albeit a very small one, and while advertising provides all our funding, it is truly sponsoring our mission – being a news and discussion hub.

    No, you do not “own” the ones that are allowed, unless you mean something other than Communications Decency Act Section 230. But yes indeed, the organization’s values are reflected in its rules, as in many other aspects of its operation. Right now, having no rules, or not enforcing the ones you have, speaks to a lack of values, which I would say is far worse.

  10. […] “Can Online Comment Sections Be Dialogue Spaces?” The blog article, reprinted at the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation website, explores the issue and presents the  most popular suggestions for solving the problem of hateful, […]

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