Why online comments go bad (and how to make them better)

February 19, 2019 01:30

Engaging viewers, listeners and readers online is no longer optional for journalists. From newsgathering to building sources and growing audiences for news content, effectively navigating the digital public square is increasingly key.

Comments cause harm to journalists
But the digital sphere can be a dark space, as nearly two thirds of women in journalism can attest firsthand. According to a global International Women’s Media Foundation study, nearly two in three women in journalism have experienced online harassment. The amount of online abuse and its affects are widely underestimated, the study reported, with relatively few subjects of online harassment reporting the behavior to social media platforms or supervisors. The study found that online harassment has dramatically increased over the last five years, and respondents in the U.S. report the increasingly vitriolic climate toward journalists is a significant factor.

Harassment in online comments sections can lead to physical effects including inability to sleep or concentrate and anxiety. Online harassment also presents a physical safety risk, as the behavior can quickly escalate to stalking and other physical threats. 29% of women in journalism who report being harassed online, the study found, have considered leaving the profession altogether as a result of online harassment.

Comments cause harm to news outlets
The negativity rife in comment sections is harmful not only to individual journalists but also to news outlets overall. Research from the Center for Media Engagement has found that when comments on a news outlet’s stories are “uncivil,” or include profanity, name-calling and all-caps digital yelling, comment readers’ attitudes toward the news outlet overall are less positive, the outlet is viewed as less valuable and readers are less loyal. Even if a conversation begins positively, if comments later devolve, detrimental effects emerge. In other words, news consumers judge news outlets, at least partially, based on the tone and quality of other user’s comments.
Comment sections still have potential
With the potential harm to mental health and safety, it may be tempting to abandon comment sections completely, potentially to the detriment of news outlets’ reputations. But it is possible to shift the tone and generate more constructive engagement through online reader comments. The Trusting News project has found that “engaging authentically” can increase trust in news organizations and suggests journalists “reward productive comments and publicly challenge harmful ones,” including fact checking users’ comments, engaging proactively and focusing on comments which are antagonistic or sarcastic but not yet abusive. Comments sections, more than 50 newsrooms have found through the project, can become more productive when they provide more transparency, pulling back the curtain on the journalism process and heading off common questions or erroneous assumptions about journalism.

Steps to engage and minimize harm
  • Proactively engage with productive comments, like valid feedback and questions. Set and maintain a tone.
  • Have a newsroom-wide social media policy making clear what behaviors are inappropriate and what consequences will be, from warnings to banning.
  • Take harassment seriously.
  • When threats become personal, provide a channel for someone else from the newsroom to take over monitoring and addressing comments.
  • Report behavior violating platforms’ terms to the platforms and document incidents for law enforcement reporting.