Marginalized Voices in Comment Spaces

By Meredith D. Clark, Ph.D

Journalism has a credibility problem – especially among people of color. In 2014, research indicated around 75 percent of Black and 63 Hispanic news media consumers indicated they did not trust the mainstream news media to cover their communities adequately and fairly.

When I walked out of the newsroom in 2010 to pursue a career in researching ways to make journalism better, I took one key lesson with me: everyone wants to be heard.

Thirty U.S.-based women of color and non-binary people of color confirmed this truth over the summer as I listened to their experiences navigating online comments, one of the most neglected spaces on the Internet, in a study paid for by The Coral Project. Through in-depth interviews with participants from across the United States, and from backgrounds ranging from the working poor to tech, I walked away with a few starting points for news outlets that still work in the pursuit of discourse as a key component in our democracy. And you can help further my research – scroll to the bottom to learn how.

(A qualifier: No, 30 people do not a generalizable sample size make; especially when we’re talking about the experiences of marginalized folks. The interviews are a starting point for additional research – a survey – to tease out more details about the dynamics of creating sites of online conversation that bring together news discourse and public opinion. More on that later.)

For starters, the concept of online commenting needs a bit of disambiguation – a valuable insight about where marginalized folks feel most comfortable talking to others about the news.

Participants who read the comments tend to interweave their experiences talking about news in social media spaces, and discussing it in the forums below or beside news stories on the web. The ease in which these individuals talk about where they choose to speak up about the day’s affairs points to the enduring relevance of learning how to engage diverse audiences on social media platforms.

Whether they used Twitter or Facebook (and most of them used Twitter), participants preferred commenting in social spaces because they are easier to use and offer the individual more control over who can listen to and respond to the things they have to say.

“I [don’t] directly post on a news article because I [don’t] want to engage with a lot of people,” said Avi, who lives on the East Coast. On Twitter, Avi explained, there is a sense of community whenever they post – a sense of commonality that, interestingly, users they can cultivate among millions of other people on the platform, but not in the online comments section of their local newspaper, where, perhaps only a handful of people add their voices to discussions about news and current events.

Social media offers a thread back to news websites through story posts and conversation. One suggestion from participants was for more news outlets to engage in online chats with readers in order to fill in the gaps about the stories of the day, answer questions about implications of policy and politics, and give readers an opportunity to learn more about the person(s) behind the byline.

In ‘News That No-One Needed a Study to Figure Out,’ readers who ignore the comments altogether, or have to basically meditate before wading into the fray, see unmoderated comment sections as an abandonment of journalists’ duties.

“You can be doing fine with your writing and coverage and sports, but then you have this rotting sewage in the middle of your publication that you refuse to do anything about,” said a recently retired news editor who asked that we not publish her name.

“If you’re not going to moderate and be responsible for what’s happening in the comment section of their publication then shut it down. You’re responsible for everything: your advertising and your classifieds. Why not for your comment section?!” she said.

From simply keeping the spam out to keeping people on topic, the interview participants agreed that comment moderation would be essential to their willingness to participate in news sites’ commenting sections. And while they’re aware of the draw down on resources the industry continues to face, they stress that moderation is one key to re-connecting with communities that have been historically marginalized by the press.

Among the study participants who both read and post comments on news websites, one of the most common themes was that these individuals are ‘doing the work’ to advocate for themselves and their communities in online discourse.

When news outlets open a comments section to readers, and those individuals who don’t see themselves portrayed accurately or fairly have to endure abuse and disinformation to educate other commenters from the general public, we can arguably call that discourse. When they’re forced to do it after reporters and editors do things like printing a trans individual’s “deadname” or allow other commenters to post racial and gender-based epithets underneath stories news professionals have otherwise painstakingly crafted, we call that a failure to consider the humanity of our readers.

I analyzed (and continue to analyze) these interviews as a starting point for insights on how we can make the comments section, too often a wasteland of vitriol and spam, more meaningful. I’m identifying key themes that will help newsrooms of every size engage in a more thoughtful, inclusive approach to fostering online dialogue – for example, one common theme in all 30 interviews was that every participant expressed enthusiasm and appreciation for the hour-long opportunity to make their voice heard.

Like the folks working behind the scenes with The Coral Project, I am not willing to yield the comments section as a practice space for vitriolic debate about the day’s news. Working with the insights of the first 30 participants, the next step in this research is the development and administration of a survey to learn more about how we can address journalism’s failure to conduct meaningful conversations with our audiences.

This is where you can help. To go beyond the nine states represented in the initial data, we are running an online survey of commenting experiences among women of color and non-binary people of color. And it needs a boost from you. Whether your organization actively monitors, moderates or participants in the online commenting process, we’d like to hear from your readers about how your site – and others around the web – can make comment forums a place for inclusive dialogue.

The survey launches today. The link to it is here. Please share it with your communities, encouraging women of color and non-binary people of color to participate. Thank you.

Meredith D. Clark (@meredithdclark) is an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. This study has been funded by The Coral Project.

Photo from WOCinTech, CC-BY