The comment section of a news story generally is viewed as a quagmire of negativity on any news site. Comments may start out on topic and focused on the facts of the story, but, given even a little bit of time, it isn’t uncommon for the comments to degrade to name calling, hate spewing and off topic banter. However, a recent study suggests commenters want better, deeper discussion. They want to be pulled up out of the mire and into the intellectual light.
The Engaging News Project at the University of Texas and The Coral Project released findings from a survey looking at more than 12,000 users of 20 different news sites. An average of 81 percent of respondents said they wanted more engagement from reporters by, according the Nieman Lab’s Shan Wang, clarifying “factual questions in the comment section,” and, what’s more, “58 percent said they’d like it if journalists actively contributed to comment sections.” The survey also showed a desire for “experts” on the topic of the story to take part in the discussion.
So why do commenters want journalist and experts to take part?
The survey would seem to point to the fact commenters believe the threads are either “very” or “somewhat” uncivil. Some journalists agree, as did Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen in a 2012 interview with Jake Batsell for Batsell’s book, “Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences” (ISBN: 978-0231168359):
It’s not that you don’t get some good stuff once in a while, but 90 percent of these guys are idiots. There’s a debate raging about whether you even should have comments, because it’s such a small group and they’re not very valuable customers.
That’s harsh, but the survey supports the concept. People involved in the discussion think it could be improved. Some might ask, then, why the commenters don’t do a better job at self-regulating the comments, but that’s a copout. The question is deeper than that. It speaks to a systemic issue with comment threads. If comments are allowed on stories as an attempt by media companies to engage with their readers, then the onus is on the media companies themselves to clean up the comments and make the hospitable for productive public discourse.
The survey shows the reason people are taking part in the comments is because they want to be heard. Sometimes people simply want their opinions heard, and other times people want to correct a misconception or balance a discussion. Either way, it amounts to a desire to a part of the process. Batsell had it right when he said news consumers of this day and age have the ability to report news on their own thanks to the proliferation of social media and other technological capabilities at their finger tips, so media organizations must understand this and bring their readers into the fold. Gone are the days of journalists being gatekeepers. Now, they are moderators and guides. The work journalists do is still relevant in keeping the masses informed and supporting democracy as long as they understand they are now doing it with the audience instead of to the audience.
The people have spoken. Will media organizations listen and thrive?