Where The Audience Is At

by Tiffany Walden

The online comment section can be a scary place. As a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel for two years, I feared browsing the comment section after writing a story about abortion or a black man being killed by gun violence. For many journalists, reading the comments is a no-no, and God forbid that a reporter actually participate in the comment section.

Natalie Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project, is an expert at understanding and measuring the behavior of commenters on news sites. Based at the University of Texas at Austin, the Project is a foundation-funded organization dedicated to helping newsrooms identify commercially viable strategies for engaging their audiences while aiding in the democratic exchange of ideas. With 10 people on staff, it has completed about a dozen academic studies on comment and community spaces for news.

“Comment sections, when left to the wild, are actually wild,” Stroud says. “What we’ve been trying to do is evaluate different practices that might be able to change the dynamics of the comment section [while] operating within the constraints of a real newsroom.”

The Engaging News Project has just released the results of a national survey of 600 commenters. The findings indicate that the poor reputation of comments has not stopped readers from engaging with them.

According to their study, 55 percent of American internet users have left a comment on a news site, while 35 percent read without commenting themselves. But only 14% of internet commenters in their study interacted on a news site – 77.9 percent of people who comment do so on social media and not news websites, something Stroud’s research shows has implications beyond just avoiding the comment section.

“I don’t think all newsrooms are using [the comment section] to its fullest potential,” Stroud says. “It does worry me when a comment section is completely unattended, when we have research that suggests that if you look at a comment section and there is a lot of instability, it can affect your impression of the journalism and the news organization.”

One of Stroud’s studies, Journalist Involvement in Comment Sections, focused on how commenters’ behavior changes when a reporter joins the conversation in the comment section.

Some newsrooms, Stroud says, thought of journalist participation as taboo. Other newsrooms encouraged it. To reconcile the varying opinions, the Engaging News Project worked with one newsroom to randomize the days when their reporter would post in the comment section.

The results:

  • When a reporter was involved in the comment section, incivility declined by about 15 percent.
  • The probability that people would give a reason or rationale for their comments increased by about 15 percent.

“We found a lot happened when the journalist was involved but not when the station – like a generic station member – was involved,” Stroud says. She couldn’t identify the news organization or reporter that participated in the study.

“There was something really special about it being a reporter,” she says. “In this instance, it was a well-known political reporter.”

According to Stroud, the study proved that there are effective ways to manage a comment section. The reporter who jumped in the comment section answered questions, provided clarifying information about the story and asked questions to spark a conversation. This created an effective comment section, Stroud says. The reporter did not engage with anyone who was being uncivil or ignoring the comment section rules.

In another behavioral study, the organization tracked the variability and number of comments across different topics.

Stroud says stories about health or abortion, for example, produced more incivility, “which may not be totally surprising.” Education stories produced a lot less incivility.

“Stories on education also tended to have more relevant comments, so people weren’t veering off topic,” she says. “As for health and abortion, they were both more relevant.”

Another behavioral experiment called Engagement Buttons explored the use of a “like,” “recommend,” or “respect” button in the comment section. The “like” button generated more partisan responses.

“You like things that match your partisan,” Stroud says. “Democrats like Democrat comments and Republicans like Republican comments.” Reactions were less partisan with the word “respect,” she says.

According to Stroud, a handful of newsrooms currently put the ENP’s discoveries into practice – including journalist participation, audience engagement through “like” and other buttons, and more. They are also exploring ways to improve the newsroom’s reporting by involving the community more closely in the journalists’ work.

“Yes, there are some terrible things,” Stroud says about the comment section. “But sometimes you can get a sense of where the audience is at [and] what kind of things may be perplexing for them. It could give you an idea for another story.”

Tiffany Walden writes about music and Black culture for a variety of publications, including Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader and Blackdoctor.org. She is a former freelance writer for Ebony Magazine, breaking news reporter for Orlando Sentinel and government reporter for Abilene Reporter-News.

Photo Credit :Dr. Stroud presenting at the Breaking Through conference in Austin, July 2015. Photo courtesy of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life

Full disclosure: The Engaging News Project is partnering with the Coral Project on a future study on commenter behavior.

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