There are three types of people in this crazy world:
- People who write in comment sections on news websites.
- People who read the comments and have trouble looking away, kind of like a train wreck.
- People who avoid the comment sections altogether because the insanity that ensues sometimes is just unbearable.
And then you have the special ones who are charged with moderating the comments. A few of those people got together at South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive to present on the panel, Comments Are Terrible: But They Don’t Have to Be. They talked about the highs and lows of building an online community, guiding productive conversations and the changing role of the journalist.
The house was packed for this panel, with journalists and web masters from various newspapers and publishers taking a seat to listen to presenters Erica Palan, Audience Engagement Manager at Philly.com, Greg Barber, Lead on Strategy and Partnerships at the Washington Post and the Coral Project and Talia Stroud, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and Director of the Engaging News Project.
Each presenter has their own war stories about taking down trolls, and there’s a collective approach to moving the trolls out from under their bridges to join the rest of humanity as productive people. During the panel, Palan shared a video from Philly.com that’s celebrities-read-mean tweets-meets-actual-comments-readers-make-on-news-articles:
Humor seems to be a must-have tool for journalists and publishers because they all agreed that in the end, they have one goal:
Build enlivened communities without hate speech or anger.
Comment Section Strategies
There’s some debate over new websites comments sections. Journalists and publishers aren’t the same as social media sites; they’re not required to allow readers to comment or publically express their opinions. For many years, print journalism thrived without this two-way dialogue. So, the questions: What’s a good strategy for monitoring a comment sections? Monitor, delete, take them down? And really, why should news organizations even have comments? They take a ton of time and resources to monitor.
“Connection to the audience!” advocates Barber. “Comments are content too. The people who write comments are actually your most loyal users. They come back often, they stay longer, they are more likely to engage with you in ways that lead to subscriptions and events,” he explains.
Stroud agrees. “Comments are part of democratic norms. Comments have the potential to be a place where people can learn from one another, where papers can learn about their readership or find new sources,” she says.
Stroud has studied comment sections from a structural perspective and found:
- Commenters are influenced by the architecture of comment sections.
- A pro/con section at the top of the comments can help tie commenters to some context and put parameters on the discussion or debate.
The buttons on the comment should be catered to the medium; instead of “like” or “dislike,” use “recommend” or “respect.” Strangely enough, people will hit “respect” for a comment they don’t like. For example, a Democrat will “respect” a Republican’s comments.
This all makes sense to the rest of the panel. “[We should] approach the comment sections as a place that must provide value. It’s interactivity on your storytelling,” says Barber.
Tools and Tactics for Managing the Comments Section
The comments section has the potential to do great things. “If we make connections with these users, we can cement stronger relationships that will lead to increased readership,” Barber explains.
So what about those dreaded trolls?
“Sometimes just reminding the commenters that their comments are racist, homophobic or misogynistic [works for curbing the trolls]. It is like a teacher reprimanding a third grader,” Palan explains.
Stroud agrees, noting that there’s research to back that up. “If a reporter enters the comment section and engages with the commenters, the instability of the comments drops by 15 percent! Just by asking questions and proving factual questions; we have some evidence that journalists involvement will help moderate a comments section.”
Palan and the journalists at Philly.com have noticed that trend too. “[We] tried it on Philly.com – and it really helped,” she says.
Keeping Up with the Comments
“It can be hard to keep up with comments, from Facebook and Twitter and other sources,” says Palan. “So much discourse sometimes on powerful stories. So with our resources, we have to clean up the stuff on our site (Philly.com).”
Barber chimes in, “If commenting sections are nurtured, paid attention to and engaged with, they will become communities. And communities can be argumentative and disagree, but they are also very supportive and empowering.”
The debate does rage on about moderating these comments. Stroud found in her studies that “About 42 of people think comments should be moderated, but about 42 percent think they are free speech and should not be touched,” she says.
And one surprising finding: “Sixty percent think journalists should be involved in the comments section and be engaging with commenters,” she says, which changes a journalist’s role from being a news presenter to a news engager, you know, in addition to the roles they often play as editor, producer and photographer too.
What We Learned from the Pros
- Use a monitoring tools like the brand-spanking-new Coral Project. The software helps to monitor online communities, and it’s what Barber works on, too. It’s open source, so it’s designed to be integrated with and used as a tool along with other software.
— Joseph Neese (@josephneese) March 14, 2016
- Make rules for your comments section. Post them at the top. Tell people what you’re talking about. See exhibit A from Philly.com.
- Focus on nurturing the comments section. If you’re a moderator, it’s your job to remind commenters that there’s an adult in the room and there’s no space in your community for bigotry, hatred or disrespect.
(Cover photo by Charlotte Soileh)