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Last month, NPR decided to remove comments from its site altogether, noting that user engagement was higher through other channels, and that comments were frequently not leading to productive conversations.

NPR is certainly not the first organization to make such a move—last year, Nieman Lab chronicled what happened after seven prominent news sites removed their comments sections. But these decisions reflect one of the thorniest questions for evaluators of journalism impact. At what point is engaging the public a measure of success—and at what point does engagement cross the line into trolling that can undermine an outlet’s legitimacy?

As NPR Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen observes, “NPR stands for National Public Radio, so a decision to limit ‘public’ input at NPR.org seems especially jarring.” However,  internal research revealed that the user base for comments was comparatively small. In July, NPR.org recorded nearly 33 million unique users, only .06 percent of whom were commenting. What’s more, more than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from 2,600 users—many of whom, readers complained, were employing a tone not in keeping with NPR’s more reserved approach to reporting.

While the comments have come down, notes Jensen, NPR will continue to explore other modes of public engagement, including via social media and the Hearken platform, the development of which has been supported by a number of foundations, including Wyncote, MacArthur, Knight, Ford, New Media Ventures, the McCormick Foundation and the Doris and Howard Conant Fund for Journalism.

Striving for civility
It’s not that people aren’t using comments across the board. According to research from the Engaging News Project, 55 percent of Americans have left a comment online and 77.9 percent have read the comments on an article at some point. Comments can be a useful way to facilitate direct interaction between journalists and readers and surface multiple viewpoints. It’s just that, all too often, comments sections require intensive moderation to prevent them from devolving into uncivil—and sometimes unsafe—attacks.
Some major news organizations like the New York Times use strategies such as human moderation and limiting which articles have comments and for how long. But just because major news organizations may have more resources to deal with the onslaught of negative comments—ranging from unproductive to abusive to illegal—doesn’t mean they don’t deal with the same challenges.

Earlier this year, the Guardian ran an interactive feature called “The Dark Side of Comments,” which took a deep dive into the Guardian’s own comments sections. It revealed that women and minority reporters received a disproportionate share of abusive comments on their articles, which were often “crude, bigoted or just vile.”

In addition, certain sections of the site were more likely to generate comments that had to be blocked by moderators than others, including World News, Opinion, Environment, and—interestingly enough—Fashion. Certain specific subjects were also more likely to end up prompting uncivil comments: Israel/Palestine, feminism, and rape. (In contrast, comments on subjects like crosswords and jazz remained polite.)

The Guardian’s research reveals not only what journalists have to encounter in terms of threatening and deeply personal attacks in the comments section, but also the level of constant intervention required to keep comments at the most basic level of respect.

Now what?
For news organizations that don’t have the resources of the Times or the Guardian, is removing comments the best option? Researchers from the Engaging News Project interviewed journalists, surveyed commenters, and analyzed millions of online comments to uncover some evidence-backed ways to use comments for good:

Journalist involvement: The majority of journalists interviewed saw the value in engaging with users in the comments section, and the presence of the journalist in the comment thread tended to increase the civility of the tone.

Changing the structure of comments: Readers prefer three-column comments sections such as the one the Times employs—which allows you to choose from “All,”  “Readers’ Picks” and “NYT Picks”— and are more likely to leave a comment in this kind of structure.

Experimenting with new approaches to moderation: Employing code to weed out destructive comments has the potential for reducing some of the heavy burden of in-house monitoring.

Providing background info and facts on political articles: Users expressed more interest when they felt that the information presented was accurate and that discussions would be civil, and background information with pro/con arguments made users feel calmer and more satisfied than strict factual information.
Funders who want to increase positive conversation online may wish to explore some of these strategies, considering the vast resources it takes to maintain a productive comments section on a news sites.

Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s not important. As Amanda Zamora—the Texas Tribune’s chief audience officer—told attendees at Poynter’s recent 10UP event, comments have changed as opportunities for engagement have morphed, and polarization has become a major factor in online publishing. Still, “as we continue to innovate with social platforms and mobile tools and events and so many other avenues for user participation, I think it would be a huge mistake to discard one of the most fundamental connections we have with our readers. And that is their ability to have a voice on our own pages, with our own journalists and with each other, and to participate in a diverse, constructive dialogue around the news.”

The topic will be a hot one at this week’s Online News Association conference, where Josh Stearns of the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program will be leading a session on Designing Journalism for a Digital Conversation. Also on the docket: lessons on how to “do audience” better from the Coral Project, a collaboration between the Mozilla Foundation, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation. Both sessions are part of an Audience Engagement and Analytics track at the conference that’s sponsored by the McCormick Foundation. We’ll be live tweeting from the conference; keep an eye on @mediafunders for highlights.

Have some thoughts on how to best use comments to increase impact, and what funders can do about it? Or are we all better off without comments altogether? Leave us a comment and let us know!

About the Authors
Jessica Clark

Jessica Clark

Research Consultant

Jessica is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders, and the founder and director of media production/strategy firm Dot Connector Studio. She is also currently a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project. Previously, she served as the media strategist for AIR’s groundbreaking Localore project, the director of the Future of Public Media project at American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, and a Knight Media Policy Fellow at D.C.-based think tank the New America Foundation. Over the past decade, she has led research and convenings with high-profile universities and national media networks, including NPR, PBS, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, MIT, and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (The New Press, 2010), and a longtime independent journalist.

Katie Donnelly

Katie Donnelly

Research Consultant

Katie is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders and associate director for media strategy and production firm Dot Connector Studio. She formerly served as associate research director at American University’s Center for Social Media (now the Center for Media and Social Impact), and as senior research associate at the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab. Katie has led impact evaluations for many media organizations including PBS, Working Films, and the National Association for Latino Independent Producers. She has conducted extensive impact research, particularly on the power of documentary film, and has written about the power of media to make change for numerous academic and journalistic publications. Katie has created many educational toolkits that use media to dig into social issues, including curricula addressing youth and gender, substance abuse, and gender-based violence.