During a city council meeting, local residents are encouraged to attend and let their elected representatives know what’s on their mind. But if an unruly citizen begins to yell nasty and derogatory comments, he or she is generally escorted out of the building by security.

For newspapers in the 21st century, this is often not an option, and the increased presence of unruly commenters creates a dilemma for editors: How do you foster the free exchange of ideas among local readers in an online environment without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that govern us during in-person exchanges? 
 
When comments take a turn for the negative, it can do more than dissuade readers from participating in online forums. A new study published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication seems to confirm what many of us have known for a long time: Rude and nasty comments left on otherwise unbiased news stories can alter the way readers interpret the news.  

“It’s like the Wild West out there, because there are no social norms in online environments,” said Dominique Brossard, a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a co-author of the study.  

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and George Mason University tested the impact of negative comments on news comprehension by crafting a science story about nanotechnology, an emerging subject not many people know about. The story was shown to 1,183 participants — half of them saw the story with civil, interesting comments at the end, while the other half got the same story, but with rude, uncivil comments that included name-calling and off-subject insults.  

“What we saw was that readers interpreted the story very differently, and often incorrectly, based solely on the tone of the comments,” Brossard said.

At issue is the state of comment threads on media websites, which typically appear at the end of individual stories. These comment threads can quickly turn from an important sounding board for community discussion to a wretched hive of scum and villainy.  

Newspapers have always been in the business of fostering an exchange of ideas and letting readers comment on the stories of the day. Nearly every newspaper has a letters to the editor section devoted to this very concept. But in most cases, online comments don’t have a gatekeeper the way the op-ed page does, allowing hate and bile to spew forth.  

“It’s a difficult balancing act — you don’t want to close the door entirely on readers, but you have to do some level of moderation to control the tone of the debate,” Brossard said. She also said many potential readers interested in engaging are reluctant, for fear of being called names or getting harassed online.  

Brossard suggested that newspapers look into intelligent algorithms and other automated monitoring systems that can detect the tone of individual comments and help control the direction of the debate. Apart from simply banning certain keywords, the development of sophisticated technology is expensive, and most newsrooms aren’t in the financial position to invest in such efforts.  

In recent years, third-party sites have developed commenting systems to help media companies better manage their online forums inexpensively and leverage their online community without all the nastiness that can drive potential applicants away.  

A major player to emerge in recent years is Facebook. Using the social media giant’s third-party authorization system, readers are required to log in to the newspaper’s website with their Facebook account in order to comment on a story. The comment then appears next to that person’s real name and chosen profile picture, which gets displayed to their entire social network. The idea is that by requiring readers to use their real identity, they will be more civil, as they would be if they were in the same room as the person they disagree with. In addition, by automatically sharing stories on users’ Facebook feed when they comment on stories, publishers hope to leverage Facebook’s popularity in the communities they serve and spread their stories to relevant readers.

In September 2012, both The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette and the U.K.’s Daily Mail switched from an internal commenting system to Facebook’s third-party commenting authorization, mostly because of the negative tone that comments were taking.  

“We had issues with people creating dummy accounts to bash other commenters,” said Kathryn Gregory, Web and social media editor at the Gazette. “We got to the point where we were dredging through a sludge of nasty comments just to approve good ones.”  

The Gazette’s hope was that, by switching to Facebook and making users’ real names public, people would put their best foot forward. While the switch did cut down on racist and derogatory comments, Facebook’s commenting system introduced its own set of problems.  

According to Gregory, the number of comments and the breadth of discussion decreased dramatically across the site, although the number of unique visitors and pageviews remained the same.  

“A lot of that is because we would get 40 to 60 comments on an article, but it was the same 10 people,” Gregory said. “When we switched, we only lost a small portion of our readers.”  

Facebook isn’t the only game in town. The need to manage online communities and their comments has led to the development of many platforms for publishers to choose from, such as IntenseDebate, Livefyre, and Echo, to name a few.  

One of the more popular solutions is Disqus. Founded in 2007, Disqus is a mainstay on many popular websites, such as CNN and the London Daily Telegraph, for its ease of use and ability to manage large communities across multiple stories.  

The popular news site Talking Points Memo recently switched back to Disqus after a brief experimentation with Facebook comments.  
“A number of our verticals, like TPM Livewire, can have 40 to 70 items a day, and all those posts have comment threads,” said Kyle Leighton, TPM associate publisher. “The beauty for Disqus is those threads work with a minimum of maintenance on our side.”  

Leighton said TPM found a good portion of its commenting community wasn’t comfortable using Facebook to weigh in, preferring to remain anonymous. In fact, the switch to Facebook revealed a deep-seated dislike of the social network among a small but vocal part of the community who resented having to sign up for the service just to comment.  

Regardless of the commenting system a newsroom chooses, Brossard said that with a little effort and a couple of thorough comment moderators, a well-managed commenting system can still add breadth and understanding to most news stories. She also rejects the notion put forth by many reporters that newsrooms should remove comment threads entirely.

“The genie is out of the bottle. Reader interaction is part of what makes the Web such a lively arena for discussion,” Brossard said. “The trolls will still be out there, but they will only win if we let them win.”  


----- Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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