Fall, 2016 (Issue 26.1–2)

News Comment Sections as Deliberative Sites?

Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud
Department of Communication Studies and Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation, University of Texas, Austin, TX, USA

Deliberative isn’t exactly the term one would use when thinking about news comment sections. Although optimists originally conceived of news comment sections as a space where people would come together and engage in civil discussions, the reality of the space is far from this ideal. In reality, comment sections are filled with incivility, irrelevance, intolerance, and a whole host of less-than-deliberative content. Just because many comment sections are this way, however, does not mean that they have to be. Over the past several years, I’ve been working with a team of faculty, students, and staff members at the Engaging News Project. The broad mission of the Project is to evaluate digital tools and strategies that improve news organizations’ digital presence. As part of this endeavor, we’ve conducted several analyses of news comment sections (an overview of this work is here).

News comment sections are important both practically and theoretically. Practically, comment sections are both a blessing and a curse for newsrooms. On the positive side, comment sections can provide feedback that can be useful for journalists and can be a source of revenue. Newsrooms that value their comment section often say that their commenters tend to be among the most loyal site visitors. On the negative side, comment sections can hurt the news brand, can affect what people take away from the journalism, and can demoralize news staff. Although several high profile news organizations have turned off their comments, others continue to invest in the space. We’ve talked to several news organizations that are thinking about what to do with the space, making scholarship about comment sections relevant to practitioners.

Theoretically, comment sections are important because they provide a real world context in which to examine many important communication theories without turning to the artificiality of the lab experiment or the unreliability of self-reports in a survey. Theories such as spiral of silence, motivated reasoning, and gatekeeping, for instance, can be investigated in these spaces. The shortcomings of comment sections as a deliberative space and ways to encourage interaction that more closely resembles deliberation also can be analyzed.

At the Engaging News Project, we have conducted several research projects with relevance to the practical questions facing newsrooms about how to manage comment sections and the theoretical questions attracting scholarly attention about what practices increase deliberation. Two steams of research most relevant to assessing deliberative outcomes are:

  1. How a Comment Section is Designed Affects Commenting Behavior. We’ve analyzed how comment sections are designed and whether different layouts can affect how people engage. A three-column comment section that more directly shows arguments for, against, and neither on an issue (a layout that draws inspiration from research on argument repertoire) can increase engagement in the comment section.¹ We also have analyzed how a change in layout of the New York Times comment section affected behavior in the comment section. The prominence of abuse flags, for instance, affects the extent to which people engage with them.
  2. How a Newsroom Interacts Affects Commenting Behavior. In one study, we found that having a prominent reporter engage in the comment section by answering and asking questions and encouraging deliberative conversation improved the civility of comments by around 15 percent. Although not a panacea, this practice does affect the tone of the conversation. We also have been surveying commenters to understand what practices they would like to see in the space. We’ve seen consistent support for having journalists answer factual questions or having experts involved in the comment section. This also could improve the deliberativeness of the space.

We are by no means the only scholars looking at comment sections and how they can be improved to create more deliberative experiences. Research on anonymity (Halpern & Gibbs, 2013; Rowe, 2015; Santana, 2014), moderation (Lampe & Resnick, 2004; Park, Sachar, Diakopoulos, & Elmqvist, 2016; Ruiz et al., 2011; Wise et al., 2006), the factors that inspire interactivity (Ziegele, Breiner, & Quiring, 2014), and news organizations’ policies (Ksiazek, 2015) is adding depth to our understanding. And this brief list of other research is only a small subset of the many interesting projects that are strengthening our understanding of creating more deliberative spaces online. I’m encouraged to see what new research takes place critically examining deliberation in comment sections (or in other online discussion spaces) in the coming years.

¹ Note that more design work is needed to ensure that the rightmost column doesn’t see diminished engagement due to its placement.

Notes on contributor

Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud (PhD, Pennsylvania) is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on political communication, media effects, and public opinion.

References

Halpern, D., & Gibbs, J. (2013). Social media as a catalyst for online deliberation? Exploring the affordances of Facebook and YouTube for political expression. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 1159–1168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2012.10.008

Ksiazek, T. B. (2015). Civil interactivity: How news organizations’ commenting policies explain civility and hostility in user comments. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59(4), 556–573. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2015.1093487

Lampe, C., & Resnick, P. (2004). Slash(dot) and burn: Distributed moderation in a large online conversation space. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 543–550). New York, NY: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/985692.985761

Park, D., Sachar, S., Diakopoulos, N., & Elmqvist, N. (2016). Supporting comment moderators in identifying high quality online news comments. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1114–1125). New York, NY: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/2858036.2858389

Rowe, I. (2015). Deliberation 2.0: Comparing the deliberative quality of online news user comments across platforms. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59(4), 539–555. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2015.1093482

Ruiz, C., Domingo, D., Micó, J. L., Díaz-Noci, J., Meso, K., & Masip, P. (2011). Public sphere 2.0? The democratic qualities of citizen debates in online newspapers. International Journal of Press/Politics, 16(4), 463–487. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161211415849

Santana, A. D. (2014). Virtuous or vitriolic: The effect of anonymity on civility in online newspaper reader comment boards. Journalism Practice, 8(1), 18–33. https://doi.org/10.1080/17512786.2013.813194

Wise, K., Hamman, B., & Thorson, K. (2006). Moderation, response rate, and message interactivity: Features of online communities and their effects on intent to participate. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(1), 24–41. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00313.x

Ziegele, M., Breiner, T., & Quiring, O. (2014). What creates interactivity in online news discussions? An exploratory analysis of discussion factors in user comments on news items. Journal of Communication, 64(6), 1111–1138. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12123

News Comment Sections as Deliberative Sites?