-Hello everyone. My name is Marie Shanahan and I teach digital journalism at UConn. -But before I got my current job, I worked for 12 years as an online editor at The Hartford Courant- America&apos;s Oldest Continuously Published Newspaper. -And I can tell you the EXACT day when my interest in online commenting was born: June 20, 2008. It was a Friday, and shortly after lunch a big crowd showed up on the doorstep of the Courant to protest…..our online comment sections. -Community activists and city employees, led by Hartford’s mayor, demanded that as a corporate citizen in the community, the Courant should stop providing a “platform for hate and racist material.” -The accusation was mortifying to me, but it was deserved. At the time, trolls had overrun the Courant’s unmonitored anonymous comment boards. Awful dialogue was posted the bottom of every news story. The comments gave me headaches. - But moderating them was not my responsibility, not the newsroom&apos;s responsibility. That space belonged to the readers. We journalists had too many other more important things to do. The Courant’s publisher at the time responded to the protest with a statement saying that the comment sections were a reflection of &quot;a free society working at its best and at its worst.&quot; And that the comment boards were still valuable, if imperfect. - The protesters were right and our publisher was right. - A journalistic conundrum, indeed.
- The commenting climate overall hasn&apos;t improved much since 2008. There&apos;s just more places and more people leaving comments. Toxic online commentary so pervasive it’s a pop culture joke. - Jimmy Kimmel has Celebrities Reading Mean Tweets about themselves. HBO‘s The Newsroom had anchor Will McAvoy on a “mission to civilize” his network’s online commenters. - And just last month (August 2015) The E! network launched a new Friday night show that makes jokes out of guess what? Online comments.
- Human beings – we are hardwired to communicate. We value freedom of expression. We have lots of opinions and experiences to share. The News - the work of journalists - starts conversations. None of that is new. - What the internet does, though, is enable people to be MORE of what they already ARE. So if I like to bloviate in IRL, I&apos;m going to take advantage of digital communication spaces to do the same. - Humans are also subversive and opportunistic and self serving. If there is a flaw in the system, we tend to find a way to exploit it.
- Here&apos;s what happens when we journalists don&apos;t tend to our online conversation spaces: - The Feral middle school boy inside of some of us takes over.
- Tox-SISS-I ty left unchecked leads to bullying, flaming, doxxing, unpleasant spaces.. Speech acts a little differently online. You can find posts out of context. Speech can be copied and shared instantly to huge numbers of people. -- Online discourse can happen in real time like on twitter, but posts can also linger indefinitely in searchable archives - and nasty comments – those ones fester. We don’t like that. The aggressive tone of online commenting has caused a serious problem in online discourse: Participation Inequality. Researchers are finding that men dominate online commenting. A lot of women are not posting comments online because they don’t feel comfortable or safe. - Participation Inequality isn’t so good for journalism, and it isn’t good for our modern democracy. Survey Survey: https://today.yougov.com/news/2014/10/20/over-quarter-americans-admit-malicious-online-comm/ IMAGE: Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org) graphic created by EFF Senior Designer Hugh D&apos;Andrade to illustrate EFF&apos;s work against patent trolls. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Trolls#/media/File:Troll-gold.png
Is the ability to be anonymous online the problem? Anonymity certainly does enable some bad actors, but as news organizations have forced people to register, use real names, login using a facebook account. It hasn&apos;t solved the incivility problem. Whether you want people to use real names or not, ….
…civility is emotional maturity. Comments and commenters still need graduate from middle school. To do that, I think they need a teacher in the classroom. I&apos;ll argue that teacher should be us – the journalists. Professional journalists make good moderators, based our training, our commitment to open-minded inquiry and accuracy, and our code of ethics.
We also need better comment boxes. The structures of most existing online news commenting platforms enables again too many bad actors. The comment systems on a lot of news sites also don’t work well on mobile devices, which is what most of us are using to communicate today. Recognizing the HASHTAG FAIL, lots of news organizations in the past year have ditched their on-site commenting systems and are now relying completely on social media platforms for conversations with the audience. That’does make some sense to me. More and more traffic to news stories comes from social. Audiences are already on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and leaving comments on their friends’ vacation pictures.
But social isn’t perfect either. Read some comments on YouTube. Which is why no matter where a news organization or a journalist decides to host conversation about the news stories we’re producing, a journalist needs to be there, too, guiding that debate with your journalistic powers to make it intelligent, fair, accurate, and valuable. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jun/02/youtube-competition-freedom-of-speech-comment-trolls
So What do we really want in our comment sections? We want to be Enlightened and entertained . I read comments on Deadspin. Sometimes they are really funny. We prefer comments that actually address the topic of the story We favor informed opinions and a variety of perspectives. Comment can disagree but they treat others ideas’ with respect. It’s all the same stuff we look for when we’re reporting a news story. We also like audience contributions that give us new information, or new sources for a potential follow up story. We like finding fresh new voices for op eds contributions. Contributions from the audience have value when they meet some standards. If we’re prompting a discussion by posting a story and promoting it on social media yet not setting the tone/rules for the discussion, at least initially, the discourse won’t elevate itself. That’s why journalists are picked to moderate presidential debates. - My last bullet: community
comments sections-- when welcoming -- can form communities
Should there be an moderated discussion on every story? I think not. Some stories are better suited for debate than others. Choose thoughtfully which ones, just like we do when we exercise our news judgment for the front page or when deciding our broadcast line up. Is this the right topic? Does the story feature provocative sources or is it likely to draw attention from provocateurs? Am I going to host my discussion under the story on my news site, or on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit. Different platforms attract different people. They are also structured differently. Conversations in one place may be easier to moderate than others. Can I commit to moderating or at least monitoring the conversation in all the places I post the story? I think we have an ethical responsibility to do that – plus what’s posted there effects your reputation. If I can’t pay attention to it, why am I sharing the story in the first place? What if the story attracts hundreds OR thousands of comments? How can I be smart about sorting the chaos? -Can I aggregate a really good disccssion thread into a story? Can I highlight the best comments in another story? Can I label and explain the various sides of the argument presented? Measure return on my journalistic investment of time, energy in hosting a forum? Think of value in terms of new story ideas generated, or readers/viewers coming back to my news site for more because they value the discussion spaces and what they learn., too. - There’s also this idea that the new comment section for journalists should be QUESTIONS. Ask the audience what they want to do know more about and why. Use that as a starting point for stories and then cycle back to the audience. And if you or your news organization just can’t tend to the fields, then don’t bother planting any seeds. Liability – wield influence on all connected platforms. Focusing the discussion early on drastically reduces the need for moderation later Moderation - keep the record straight – Army ranger – on site, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, Medium Knowing the internet is an endless debate. Knowing there are bad actors. Worst case scenario. No comments. Second worst case scenario: too many comments. Highlight contributions: Aggregate a collection “Comment reporting”
What if the conversation about my news story goes viral and takes on a life of its own. What happened to Serial on Reddit. 44,000+ active commenters. How handle comments/uphold journalism ethics/keep record straight on platform you don’t control?
The Denver Post leaves comments open on all its stories. And they moderate all flagged comments. - Social Media Editor Sara Grant told me they know their audience well enough to know which story topics will draw comments, not just likes or shares. - Stories about Immigration, Police violence, politics, and death penalty get “many many comments. Sara said the Denver Post does not turn them off, we just keep a close eye on the flagged comment queue. The guidelines they use for onsite comments put into practice on facebook and instagram. No personal attacks, off topic comments, libel, threats, profanity. The Denver Post had tons of comments recently in its coverage of the Aurora Theater shooters sentencing. Online producers, Sara said, receive training in how to deal with comments on emotional topics. “Our job in the end is to tell a story and facilitate conversation, not dictate it.” she said.
I asked social media editor Angilee Shah how Public Radio International manages conversation on Facebook. Moderating discussion is a big part of Angilee’s job. She said PRI posts 7-10 items on its main Facebook page each day. PRI doesn’t ignore comment threads and Facebook does not allow any to be closed. Angilee said: “I’m not just moderating in the get rid of trolls and spam sense though. I’m developing conversations – being a reporter – connecting other reporters and producers to the conversations, inviting sources into dicussions and sussing out story ideas. I do this in two rounds – mid morning and evening.” Shah said the topics that draw the most comments are immigration, climate change and Islam, and they are trying to “develop the same amount of passion among our followers on other topics.” “I asked Angilee how does she keep the record straight or civil on a platform that PRI doesn’t totally control? She said. “The same way any good reporter does. Ask follow up quetsions. That’s the biggest tool. If someone make a big sweeping statement, we ask for citation and links. Then readers can judge for themselves what they believe. If someone says something we know to be patently false, we correct them. If someone is being uncivil, we delete their comments and ban repeat offenders. This is our party after all, and although our guests don’t have to like each other, they do need to feel safe and comfortable to speak.” “Its true that there are a lot of trolls and hate speech on the internet. On my worst days I feel like being very harsh in my moderation. But I try to give people a bit more credit. If our stories bring out people’s passions that’s a good thing.”
And if you want to see what a singular journalist can do well, look at syndicated columnist Connie Schultz Facebook page. Example of a journalist moderator. Sets tone. Monitors. Challenges . Calls out. Verifies. Just like in an in person debate. And her growing audience respects and appreciates her for it.
If journalists truly value the role we play in modern democracy, we have to make an investment in the public discourse of today - happening in online. People do not always agree. Comments ARE conflict. We can teach civility by modeling it, but it will require a shift in our priorities as journalists and news organizations. Let’s create safe, smart, open places to comment and fix that problem of #participation inequality. The comments can be more than just a late night TV joke.
To Comment Or Not To Comment
To Comment Or Not
Marie K. Shanahan
Assistant Professor of Journalism,
University of Connecticut
when we don’t
Deep down, all of us have the
potential to be a comment troll.
A 2014 survey by
YouGov found 30% of
Americans admitted to
engaging in "malicious
online activity directed
at somebody they
Graphic by EFF.org/Hugh D'Andrade, via CCSurvey: https://today.yougov.com/news/2014/10/20/over-quarter-americans-admit-malicious-online-comm/
Participation inequality study: http://cs.stanford.edu/people/emmap1/cscw_paper.pdf
“Civility is emotional maturity.”
-Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics by Susan Herbst, Temple University Press, 2010
We need a better box.
Is social media that box?
photo credit: 4nitsirk via flickr cc
"One of the hardest things to
do is scaling openness,
whether you run an internet
platform or whether you run
-- Robert Kyncl, head of content and business operations at
Source: “YouTube promises more measures to tame its comment trolls,” The Guardian. June 2, 2015
What do we really want in our
Questions to ponder before
initiating an online discussion