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Danielle Sheerin

Comment is free – but is it worth anything?

Every time I have cause to check out the stories on our local news website I am staggered by the comments stream that even the most innocuous piece of reporting generates.

Yesterday, for example, there was an awful road accident on the A27 just outside Brighton (I sincerely hope that those involved make a full and fast recovery).

This was a straightforward piece of news reporting but the comments stream soon disintegrated into petty bickering and points scoring:

This phenomenon is by no means restricted to The Argus. Online news discussions are frequently hijacked by those with a persistent and particular axe to grind and the problem of worthless or even offensive commentary is common even to national and global news organisations.

One of the problems is that, unlike brand communities where the participation is typically around a product or service, for news items the response is usually directed along more partisan lines that relate to the stance of the publication or the political ramifications that a specific story or comment implies.

Feelings run high and readers often only get involved when they specifically want to vent their anger

Additionally (and this is particularly true of local news sources), some users have a single driving issue that inflames them and they can sometimes use the comments thread to bring their issue to bear on even the most seemingly unrelated story (see example below from comments stream about an armed robbery):

Why does this matter?

This is a major problem for news sites for several reasons.  Firstly, this type of behaviour is not good for community interaction; it means that comments that provide real value to the debate may be lost (either they are buried amongst the bickering or readers are disinclined to read the comments and these contributions are missed).  At worst, some may be discouraged from participating because of the potential for sniping from the more intimidatory members of the community.

Secondly, a fractious comments community can impact the reporters and the news coverage they obtain.  Reporter Lauren Rabaino writes:

“I chatted with crime reporter Adam Foxman, whose stories often bore the brunt of the community’s ire, about how comments affected his reporting. Here’s what he said: “One of the primary ways it affected us is that I had many sources who felt hurt by the things people were saying. Sources felt reluctant to talk to us. We lost opportunities to interview people, people were more hesitant with us.””

She adds, “Not only do vitriolic comments negatively affect reporting, but because they overwhelm message boards, reporters lose opportunities for critical, constructive comments that actually could boost the quality of the reporting.”

What can be done?

There is no easy solution to this for news publications.  One of the most frequently cited reasons for this sort of behaviour is the fact that users are able to comment anonymously and it is tempting to think that users might be more polite and discreet if they have to divulge their true identities.  However, Facebook requires that their user profiles are not anonymous and yet bullying and abuse still occurs here.

Additionally, there is a real value to news brands allowing anonymous postings in their comments threads, as this allows users that want to speak out on important but sensitive issues to have a voice whilst providing them with some protection.

What is commonly recognised is that users should be made to provide persistent identities on a community, as this means that they can be accountable according to the rules and etiquette of that community.  As Martin Belam (currybet) notes “There are plenty of people on guardian.co.uk who I recognise from their username and avatar as either helpful members of the community or nuisances.”

The Slashdot community takes this a step further and allows users to rate comments and this can be a useful way of providing some means for the community to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to its members. However, one can see that this could easily descend into factional voting.

Although persistent naming and an insistence on accountability for one’s behaviour can reduce the worst cases of trolling in comments, the comments that typically appear on news sites rarely fall under the category of trolling

What users are providing is their opinion.  Quite often we may find that opinion rude, pointless and ill informed, but it is opinion nonetheless.

This makes the option of moderating news communities difficult. Sure, you can have rules and behavioural guidelines and you can remove comments that are profane or constitute discrimination or harassment but it is far more contentious to censor a comment because you deem it as providing no value.

That said, this should not preclude news brands from actively managing their communities.

Currybet suggests that ‘best type of community management I’ve seen on news sites is when a community person is alerting the principal journalist or editor of a piece or live blog to comments that need responding to, or which are interesting and move the story along. They don’t assume the role of speaking on behalf of the author, but they help facilitate that conversations, as well as being a presence themselves. And community management doesn’t just mean engaging with comments “below the line”. It means watching how the audience is reacting to stories on Facebook and Twitter and across the blogosphere, and alerting editorial staff and the rest of the audience to the best bits of that activity.”

You can certainly see the value of this approach but it relies upon a community that provides the publication with valuable input. It simply doesn’t work with unhealthy discordant communities.

No amount of listening and adjusting the news agenda to meet their needs will make the most vocal members in these communities happy, nor would it be desirable in the interests of a fair and decent reporting.

To overcome some of these challenges, some publications are now experimenting with limiting comments to selected stories only.

The VCStar (an online news source in Ventura City, CA) has taken just this approach “Starting Monday, we will limit comments to selected stories, no more than five or six each day. We will select those stories based on what we determine will generate an informative and valuable discussion. We won’t allow comments on stories that have historically generated the worst kinds of behavior; for example, we currently don’t allow comments on stories about sexual assault.”

Apparently, traffic has increased daily since this system was implemented, so readers seem to be finding the approach has improved their experience.

However, I can imagine that it could be frustrating if there is a particular local issue that affects you and you are unable to comment because it is not a selected story. Does the simple act of selection constitute a form of censorship in itself?  Will the conversations that people want to have but are unable to, just continue on other stories adding to the off-topic nature of the discussions?

There are no easy answers to this one and I’d love to know if there are any news editors out there who have similar experiences or thoughts on this?

In the meantime, I’ll keep checking the Argus for local news updates but keep the comments for humour value only!

Suzie the Terrier image by Dagny Gromer

This post was filed under Current work, Data, Marketing & PR, Not for profit, Social media and tagged , , Comments are currently closed.

8 Comments

  1. Just because comments can be used, doesn’t mean they should be. The best news sites don’t have comments, or as you say, only allow them on certain articles such as Brooks resigning – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14166162 (Note that it is heavily moderated).

    Online communities and content based websites need to take responsibility for all content produced. If they can’t or won’t moderate (like The Argus) then to be frank they shouldn’t allow comments per post.

    It doesn’t mean that people can’t get involved and discuss things. It could just be encouraged to do it elsewhere – could be a forum, twitter, Facebook page. Having comments like on The Argus is just damaging.

    And the truth be told, I’m guessing or assuming, when it comes to news, is there really a need to try to add value with comments? News is generally ‘factual’. Does it help to discuss it and add opinion? From my perspective I just want to watch/read the news then get on with something else.

    For those that want a chit chat perhaps it would be better sending them off to a forum where they can connect with other likeminded people who also want a chit chat.

    Posted 15th July 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Hi Rosie, I take your point but I think that with local news in particular debate and discussion can add value. Quite often local news stories affect the commenters directly and they can offer an alternative perspective or provide additional information. I had personal experience of this last year with the Bright Start Nursery campaign and I found the ability to explain our position in the comments very helpful for gaining support and increasing the pressure on the council. Of course, I received many comments I didn’t appreciate (but nothing that I would have moderated – I just didn’t agree with them). We could have had this conversation in a forum but I was happy to be able to reach that larger audience and corral support and I think it was relevant enough to the story to add something (even if it did polarise the debate). I think the distinction is with news in the way you describe it above, where it is simply the reporting of a factual event. Again though, we are on unstable ground here – how often is a news story just ‘factual’ – if a road accident occurs then you could argue that its just a factual event but if it occurs in a blackspot where locals have been campaigning for traffic safety measures for years, then their perspective and opinion might add valuable insight to the story.

    Posted 20th July 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  3. I’m frequently amazed at the scale of vitriol and bile for our fellow humans on news sites let alone the petty bickering. I wonder whether there is something about the medium that makes this more likely, or whether people are always carrying this antipathy around in their heads.

    I see that Techcrunch, which used to suffer from awful sniping in the comments, has seen a big improvement since they forced sign-ins: http://techcrunch.com/2011/03/06/techcrunch-facebook-comments/

    Posted 21st July 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  4. I stopped reading comments (especially on the Argus) because I ended getting so enraged. I think the last straw for me was reading comments about when the Aids Memorial in New Steine last got vandalised. I don’t think there’s much to be done as these people probably write in the heat of the moment.

    I have often thought that there could be a pop up message when they post asking “Is this comment relevant to the original story?” before it gets published.

    Posted 26th July 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  5. Danielle Sheerin

    As an aside, Ross directed me to this really interesting Guardian article on trolling which goes a bit deeper into motivations around commenting. Although not specifically about news, it’s an interesting read http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jul/24/internet-anonymity-trolling-tim-adams?CMP=twt_gu

    Posted 27th July 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  6. Arlo

    Hi guys…

    I read through your website stuff and I’m a little worried at your language. It all seems a little jargon heavy of late. I understand you are trying to portray your skills and market position, but I do think that you are losing the casual browser with your jingoism…

    “Our Insight practice combines the traditional research discipline with the modern tracking skills of knowing where in the social web to put your ear to the ground”

    Your “insight practice” is simply a jingoistic way of saying that you have years of experience in your field and you know what you are talking about. I don’t understand why you are making up buzzy terms to describe what you do. This whole sentence is a little meaningless and wordy.

    Surely the proof is in the pudding? You don’t need to bamboozle to impress. I have been quietly following you guys for years and have been impressed with how you have kept things simple. Over the last few months this odd jingoism has started to creep in… Pull back from it. Be honest…

    OK.. The corporate world is a complex and scary place, but I always thought Nixon Mcinnes cut through it with plain English and honesty… Your latest statements are so full of horrendous marketing-speak. It’s confusing… Anyone who has followed you, knows that you pride yourselves on transparency… Of late, this transparency has been plastered over with jargon, jingo and buzzy terms, which nobody really understands….

    I just thought I’d flag it up, as (for me) it’s a step in the wrong direction… Look at your copy… Take out the jargon and replace it with the true message all your jargon is somehow hiding…

    Keep being transparent… It’s why people in the industry respect and listen to you… At the moment, your web copy is horrifically opaque… Perhaps give it a re-think… If your mum doesn’t understand it, your potential partners and clients won’t either..

    Still love you guys tho
    xxx

    PS… I’m not a troll… I’m a dick ;)

    Posted 5th August 2011 at 12:33 am | Permalink
  7. Arlo

    I guess my last comment proves that people just like to comment about what they like to comment about. Things do go off-topic. You can’t control it really.

    As long as the off-topic stuff has some relevance to the overall gestalt of the website they are visiting, then in some ways it’s probably okay..

    Never go to an Apple based site… Within 3 comments, it’s all about how much better a PC/Mac is than a PC/Mac…

    I’m all about the Commodore 64. So I’m neutral.

    Posted 5th August 2011 at 12:56 am | Permalink
  8. Arlo – personally I can only agree with you. We’ll have a chat about it here.

    Lately some of our guys have been spending time thinking about how we describe ourselves to the outside world, and we’ve got a lot clearer about the different things we do.

    Unfortunately, I think we may have also picked up some corporate buzzword bollocks along with that.

    We need to see the two things as separate: the maturing, clearly defined ‘practices’ we have, and how we choose to describe them. And get things clear again.

    I reckon it’ll happen. It’s just a phase… :)

    Posted 9th August 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. [...] We’ve blogged here about how anonymity can prompt incredibly aggressive and disrespectful comments online but how much is this reactionary or trollist and how much a clearer expression of what people really think? My own view is that people moderate their opinions when they have an opportunity to take on the complexities of an issue – that can take a bit of time so there is a strong argument for decision-makers to hang fire before reacting to the vagaries of public opinion. While the mood for vengeance still appears high, I suspect that we will all be losers from the punitive sentences currently being handed down to people. [...]