To Comment or Not To Comment

By | October 7, 2015

Source: EFF Senior Designer Hugh D'Andrade to illustrate EFF's work against patent trolls. Via CC.

We all have the ability to be a comment troll. (Image by D’Andrade via CC)

I spend a lot of my time mulling over ways for journalists to elevate online discourse on news stories. Below is a presentation I gave at the 2015 Excellence in Journalism conference in Orlando, FL on September 18. Joining me was Talia Stroud of the Engaging News Project.

My prepared script for “To Comment or Not To Comment” can be found below the presentation.

To Comment Or Not To Comment from Marie K. Shanahan

Hello, everyone. My name is Marie Shanahan and I teach digital journalism at the University of Connecticut.

Before I got my current job as a journalism professor, I worked for 12 years as an online editor at The Hartford Courant- America’s Oldest Continuously Published Newspaper.

And I can tell you the exact day when my interest in studying online commenting was born: June 20, 2008. It was a Friday, and shortly after the morning news meeting a big crowd showed up on the doorstep of the Courant to protest…our online comment sections.

Community activists and city employees, led by Hartford’s mayor, demanded that as a corporate citizen in the community, the Courant should stop providing a “platform for hate and racist material.”

The accusation was mortifying to me, but it was deserved. At the time, trolls had overrun the Courant’s unmonitored anonymous comment boards. Awful dialogue was posted the bottom of every news story on our website. Those comments gave me headaches.

But moderating them was not my responsibility, not the newsroom’s responsibility. That space belonged to the readers. We journalists had too many other more important things to do.

The Courant’s publisher at the time responded to the protest with a statement saying the comment sections were a reflection of “a free society working at its best and at its worst.” And that the comment boards were still valuable, if imperfect.

The protesters were right, and our publisher was right.

A journalistic conundrum, indeed.

The commenting climate overall hasn’t improved much since 2008. There’s just more places and more people leaving comments.

Toxic online commentary so pervasive it’s become a pop culture joke.

Jimmy Kimmel has celebrities reading “mean tweets” about themselves.

HBO‘s The Newsroom had fictional anchor Will McAvoy on a “mission to civilize” his network’s online commenters.

And just last month (August 2015) The E! network launched a new Friday night show that makes jokes out of guess what? Online comments.

As human beings, we are hardwired to communicate. We value freedom of expression as a universal right. We have lots of opinions and experiences to share. The news — the work of journalists — starts conversations.

None of that is new.

What the internet does, though, is enable people to be MORE of what they already ARE. So if I like to bloviate in real life, I’m going to take advantage of digital communication spaces to do the same.

Humans are also subversive, and opportunistic, and self serving. If there is a flaw in a system, we tend to find a way to exploit it.

Here’s what happens when we journalists don’t tend to our online conversation spaces:

Lord of the Flies.

The feral middle school boy inside of some (many?) of us takes over.

Toxicity left unchecked leads to bullying, flaming, doxxing, very unpleasant online spaces.

Speech acts different online than it does in person or in print. You can find posts out of context. Speech can be copied and shared instantly to huge numbers of people.

Online discourse can happen in real time, like on Twitter, but posts can also linger indefinitely in easily searchable archives.

And nasty comments, well, those ones fester.

We don’t like that. The aggressive tone of online commenting has caused a serious problem in online discourse: participation inequality.

Researchers are finding that men dominate online commenting. A lot of women are not posting comments online because they don’t feel comfortable or safe.

Participation inequality isn’t good for journalism, and it isn’t good for our modern democracy.


Is the ability to be anonymous online the problem?

Anonymity certainly does enable some bad actors, but as news organizations have forced people to register, use real names, login using a Facebook account, it hasn’t solved the incivility problem.

Whether you want people to use real names or not…

…”civility is emotional maturity.”

Comments and commenters still need to graduate from middle school.

To do that, I think they need a teacher in the classroom.

I’ll argue that teacher should be us –- the journalists.

Professional journalists make good moderators, based our training, our commitment to open-minded inquiry and accuracy, and our code of ethics.

We also need better comment boxes.

The structure of most existing online news commenting platforms enables too many bad actors.

The comment systems on a lot of news sites don’t work well on mobile devices either, which is what most of us use to communicate today.

Recognizing the #FAIL, lots of news organizations in the past year have ditched their on-site commenting systems and are now relying completely on social media platforms for conversations with the audience.

That makes some sense to me. More and more traffic to news stories comes from social.

Audiences are already on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and leaving comments on their friends’ vacation pictures.

But social isn’t perfect either. Read some comments on YouTube.

“YouTube promises more measures to tame its comment trolls”-

Which is why no matter where a news organization or a journalist decides to host conversations about the news stories we’re producing, a journalist, ideally, needs to be there, too, guiding that debate with journalistic prowess to make it intelligent, fair, accurate, and valuable.

So what do journalists really want in our comment sections?

– We want to be enlightened and entertained. I read comments on Deadspin. Sometimes they are really funny.

– We prefer comments that actually address the topic of the story.

– We favor informed opinions and a variety of perspectives.

– Comments can disagree, and disagree strongly, but they must treat others ideas’ with respect.

It’s all the same stuff we look for when we’re reporting a news story.

– We also like audience contributions that give us new information, or new sources for a potential follow up story. We like finding fresh new voices for op-ed contributions.

Contributions from the audience have value when they meet some standards.

If we’re prompting a discussion by posting a story and promoting it on social media, yet not setting the tone/rules for the discussion, at least initially, the discourse isn’t going to elevate itself.

That’s why journalists are picked to moderate presidential debates.

My last bullet: Community.

Comments sections, when welcoming, can form communities. Community organizing is democracy in action.

Should there be a discussion hosted on every story?

I think not.

Some stories are better suited for debate than others.

Why can’t more news organizations choose thoughtfully which stories to host debate on, exercising the same type of news judgment we use for the front page or when deciding our broadcast line-up.

– Is this the right topic?

– Does the story feature provocative sources or is it likely to draw attention from provocateurs?

– Am I going to host my discussion on the story on my news site, or on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit? Different platforms attract different people. They are also structured differently. Conversations in one place may be easier to moderate than others.

– Can I commit to moderating or at least monitoring the conversation in all the places I post the story? I think we have an ethical responsibility to do that.

Plus what’s posted by us in those places affects our reputation. If I can’t pay attention to the debate I started, why am I sharing the story in the first place?

– What if the story attracts hundreds OR thousands of comments? How can I be smart about sorting the chaos?

Can I aggregate a really good discussion thread into a new story? Can I highlight the best comments in another story? Can I label and explain the various sides of the argument presented?

– ROI: Measure the return on my journalistic investment of time, energy in hosting a forum. Think of value in terms of new story ideas generated for me, a la “comment reporting,” or the readers/viewers coming back to my news site again and again because they value the discussion spaces and what they learn, too.

There’s also this idea that the new comment section for journalists should be QUESTIONS. Ask the audience what they want to do know more about and why. Use that as a starting point for stories and then cycle back to the audience.

If you or your news organization can’t commit to watering and weeding the garden, then don’t bother planting any seeds.

Focusing discussion early on often drastically reduces the need for moderation later.

We can use moderation and comments to “keep the record straight” when it is being challenged.

Knowing the internet is an endless debate, knowing there will be bad actors, let’s think strategically about the worst case scenario.

One worst case scenario: No comments.

Second worst case scenario: Too many comments.

What if the conversation about my news story goes viral and takes on a life of its own? This is what happened to the folks at the podcast ‘Serial.’ On Reddit, the ‘Serial’ discussion attracted 44,000+ active commenters. How can you handle comments/uphold journalism ethics/keep the record straight on a platform you don’t control?

The Denver Post is a news organization that allows open commenting on all its stories. It also posts stories on Facebook and Instagram. The newsroom moderates all comments flagged by users.

Social Media Editor Sara Grant told me that the Post know its audience well enough to know which story topics will draw actual comments, not just likes or shares.

Stories about immigration, police violence, politics, and death penalty get “many many comments,” she said.

Sara said the Denver Post does not turn off comment streams when that happens. “We just keep a close eye on the flagged comment queue.”

The guidelines they use for on-site comments are put into practice on Facebook and Instagram, too.

No personal attacks, no off topic comments, libel, threats, or profanity.

The Denver Post had tons of comments recently in its coverage of the Aurora Theater shooter’s sentencing. All the online producers, Sara said, received training in how to deal with comments on emotional topics.

“Our job in the end is to tell a story and facilitate conversation, not dictate it.” she said.

I asked social media editor Angilee Shah how Public Radio International manages its conversation on Facebook.

Moderating discussion is a big part of Angilee’s job.

She said PRI posts 7-10 items on its main Facebook page each day. PRI doesn’t ignore comment threads and Facebook does not allow any to be closed.

Angilee said: “I’m not just moderating in the get rid of trolls and spam sense though. I’m developing conversations – being a reporter – connecting other reporters and producers to the conversations, inviting sources into dicussions and sussing out story ideas. I do this in two rounds – mid morning and evening.”

She said the topics on that draw the most comments are immigration, climate change and Islam. She said the news organization is trying to “develop the same amount of passion among our followers on other topics.”

How does Angilee keep the record straight or civil on a platform that PRI doesn’t totally control?

“The same way any good reporter does,” she said. “Ask follow up quetsions. That’s the biggest tool. If someone make a big sweeping statement, we ask for citation and links. Then readers can judge for themselves what they believe.”

“If someone says something we know to be patently false, we correct them. If someone is being uncivil, we delete their comments and ban repeat offenders. This is our party after all, and although our guests don’t have to like each other, they do need to feel safe and comfortable to speak,” Angilee said.

Angilee added: “It’s true that there are a lot of trolls and hate speech on the internet. On my worst days I feel like being very harsh in my moderation. But I try to give people a bit more credit. If our stories bring out people’s passions that’s a good thing.”

If you want to see what a singular journalist can do well, look at syndicated columnist Connie Schultz’s Facebook page. She is a great example of a journalist as an online moderator. She sets the tone. She monitors. She challenges. She calls out and verifies, just like an in-person debate.

And Schultz’ growing audience respects and appreciates her for it.

If journalists truly value the role we play in modern democracy, we have to make an investment in the public discourse of today – happening online.

People do not always agree. Comments ARE conflict.

We can teach civility by modeling it, but it will require a shift in our priorities as journalists and news organizations.

Let’s create safe, smart places to comment and fix the problem of participation inequality.

The comments at the bottom of our news stories can be more than just a late night TV joke.

Mentions of my presentation:

The EIJ News

Latino Reporter

NJ Society of Professional Journalists

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