Some label them as keyboard warriors. Trolls. Monday morning quarterbacks. Names aside, active participation from the public can be beneficial to your news organization. But, all it takes is one bad actor for a thread to descend into chaos and name-calling.
This participation can take several forms and mediums. Maybe it’s the comment section on a digital story or a Facebook post or a listener callout to leave a voicemail about a hot-button issue. How does one police social engagement without limiting creativity? It’s a delicate balance between enforcement and fostering a thoughtful, community response for your viewership, readership and the like.
Supporting productive dialogue is critically important to democracy. When people become more polarized by the news and its commentary — or decide to avoid getting verified information altogether because of bad actors — our ability to work together on fact-based information takes a hit.
Guides & Best Practices
American Press Institute
“Getting the Most Out of Comments: A Guide for Journalists”
This American Press Institute guide highlights the importance of the response. Many commenters assume what they post will go unchecked, but simply responding thoughtfully can be a way to facilitate discussion and clarify misunderstandings. Another recommendation is to highlight and elevate good examples of engagement by thanking commenters, retweeting and even including comments in follow-up stories.
Center for Media Engagement
“Journalist involvement in comment sections”
University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement looked at more than 2,400 comments on a TV station’s Facebook page and found that as a best practice, reporters responding to comments not only reduced incivility, but provided context and encouraged more thoughtful discussion. Moreover, reporters could also engage with commenters directly by asking follow-up questions to their initial comment.
Kent State University
“Best Practices in Managing News Website Comments”
This guide from Kent State University journalism professor Mitch McKenney highlights some of the tradeoffs of social engagement. For example, removing Facebook comments from those with false names or an alias may alienate your comment section and those who enjoy that content. McKenney also notes that it’s important to plan for heavy engagement on high-impact stories and also consider turning off the comment section on certain stories. Finally, consider reaching out to commenters via email directly, even the disruptive ones.
Online News Association
One of Online News Association’s ethics topics, aimed at giving news organizations structure to create their own ethics code, is online commenting. The organization recommends deciding whether your outlet even needs to host comments to begin with. And, if so, what about anonymous comments? Finally, moderation for foul language and/or attacking someone’s gender or sexual orientation is extremely important – studies show uncivil comments polarize news consumers – but that moderation takes staff time and bandwidth, which is another consideration.
Engaging through comments
Trusting News’ guide emphasizes the importance of prioritizing time – especially staff resources – to moderate comments, especially on high-profile stories. They also suggest adopting a comment policy and using that policy when moderating the comment section. And with responses, tone is key; it’s important to operate in good faith even if the commenter is not operating in good faith.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide, has an entire resources page dedicated to online abuse, from protecting against harassment to even an editor’s checklist and mental health. It also has an emergency email available for digital safety and online harassment inquiries.
Coral, a Vox Media project, is a paid product that includes a host of moderation tools and the ability to track engagement on the back end. For commenters specifically, Coral allows them to easily identify journalists in the comment section, manage their privacy and receive notifications. The platform also has a GitHub to talk through troubleshooting issues.
“Eight best practices for journalists who reply to online comments” by Adam Ragusea
National Press Club Journalism Institute
“‘Show up’: Why (and how) journalists should respond to reader comments” by Holly Butcher Grant
Nieman Journalism Lab
“Want a better comments section? Graham Media Group thinks AI can help with that” by Sophie Culpepper
“Don’t read the comments? For news sites, it might be worth the effort.” by Elizabeth Djinis
European Journalism Observatory
“Do online comments affect the credibility of news?” by Rana Khaled Arafat