Are online comment sections a good idea? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Should those who comment be allowed to maintain anonymity? Why are so many people so nasty and uncivil in these sections? What can be done to make them work better?

Introduction

During the formative days of the internet, many people hoped that it would be used as a very resourceful tool for sharing ideas. Less than two decades later, this objective has not been achieved. The promise of thoughtful sharing through the comment sections of online articles has failed to be achieved. The biggest challenge is that many of those who make comments go off topic. Comment sections of very popular newspapers and online journals have become so crowded with visitors who make nasty, off-topic comments that it becomes impossible for participants to engage in a thoughtful discussion. This is particularly the case for articles that address specialist topics such as medicine, economy, accounting, nursing, or law.

A number of suggestions have been made to deal with incivility in the comment sections. One of them is the requirement that those who make comments give reveal their identities. Another suggestion is for journalists and writers of the articles to moderate the comments. Opponents of the requirement that people reveal their identities argue that anonymity is at the heart of the contemporary online experience. On the other hand, those who oppose the suggestion that journalists and writers moderate comments argue that this is impossible since they simply need to move on to the next article and that they have no time to monitor such a huge number of comments. The aim of this paper is to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of online comment sections. It particularly investigates whether the problem of incivility in online comments can be cured by moderation of comment sections by journalists. The thesis of the paper is that journalists’ involvement in comment sections can help deal with the problem of incivility among those who make comments anonymously.

The problem of incivility in online comment sections

News outlets the world over are increasingly adopting integrated comment sections into their websites. Today, most of online publications have introduced comment sections in their websites. A substantive number of people who read the online articles or watch online views choose to leave a comment. A significant number of those comments tend to be uncivil. They use obscene language, exaggerate issues, and make offense remarks, thereby blowing the issue under analysis out of proportions. The online comment section quickly changes from a platform for learning and discovery and becomes an avenue through which people hurl abuses against other citizens.

Traditionally, people have come to accept incivility as an integral component of news, politics, and more importantly, comment sections. The question that arises is about ways of ensuring that such incivility does not bring about negative implications for business. Once the purported target audience fails to do justice to the topic under study, other people may refrain from associating with the news outlet, broadcasting channel, or popular magazine.

Incivility significantly affects political attitudes in a negative way. It makes people to care less about opposing views. It is also likely to trigger opposition against government’s policies. Moreover, people who publish an article online only to be subjected to ridicule, abuse, and harassment are unlikely to share the crucial information in future. A more serious problem arises when readers misinterpret a news story after reading several comments. These readers may not understand that some of the people who comment may not even have read the entire story. Their comments may be motivated by ideological, political, sectarian or racial convictions.

For journalists who post their articles online, incivility is arguably the biggest challenge. Yet one of the biggest goals of such journalists is that the online sections will bring together people, particularly experts, to shed more light and make meaningful contributions to the theme under discussion. From the point of view of democracy, incivility can create the wrong impression on leaders, thereby impacting negatively on their beliefs. Readers who are uncivil in their comments can greatly influence what other people think about the issue being discussed in the topic. From a business point of view, staff writers may be concerned that abusive comments will impact negatively on the news brand of the media house.

Media houses that have attempted to employ moderators to read all comments and to remove uncivil ones have realized that this is a very expensive and time-consuming undertaking. However, this is not to say that journalists should not participate in this section albeit to try and point out the issues that people should be discussing. Such journalists may pose question to online visitors as a way of distracting them from a tirade. It is sometimes assumed that the presence of a writer influences the tenor of ongoing discussions in comments sections.

Efforts being made to deal with incivility

As incivility continues to thrive online, efforts are being made to address the problem. Some news organizations have even resolved to employ internal moderators who moderate comments before they are published on the website. A new trend has also emerged where such companies can outsource these tasks to corporate entities that specialize in comment moderation. Furthermore, a new practice has emerged where readers are required to register their real names before commenting. An alternative strategy is one that entails the introduction of punishments and rewards as a way of encouraging people to express more constructive views and to stick to the topic under discussion.

In terms of punishment, it has become very common for news outlets to introduce a new tool where readers can flag all inappropriate comments. This feedback serves as an excellent basis for determining comments that should be removed. The outlets can even install advanced tools that facilitate the blocking users with a tendency to post abusive content. In terms of rewards, it is common for website owners to introduce tools that enable readers to highlight strong comments. These tools automatically recommend the strongest comments to readers. It is also possible for a news outlet to device a mechanism for giving special recognition to all readers who identify abusive comments correctly. From this analysis, it is evident that news organizations acknowledge the existence of problems associated with abusive language and off-topic ranting in comment sections. The next big challenge is on identifying the most appropriate solution to incivility. In the context of this paper, attention is on the impact of moderation by journalists and staff writers.

The impact of journalist/writer/reporter involvement in comment sections

There is a tendency for staff writers and journalists to refrain from participating in the comment section. Most journalists look at what readers are saying but never bother to provide clarifications or to encourage readers to give alternative views. In a 2010 survey, 98 percent of newspaper reporters indicated that they read the online comments appearing on their media outlets (Santana 71). Fifty percent of these reporters indicated that they read these comments often (Santana 71). Yet it is almost unheard of for a reporter to contribute or clarify issues in the comment section.

To this extent, journalists may be said to have contributed to the problem of incivility. It seems that to reduce abusive comments, a journalist’s presence should be felt in the comments section. His role should ideally involve asking a few questions to site visitors about the issue addressed in the article. For instance, the journalist may ask the person commenting whether he thinks the ideas expressed in the article are acceptable or not. The questions may be close-ended, such that the respondent only needs to give an affirmative or negative answer.

For the presence of the journalist to be felt, he must rise above the crowd by highlighting the most productive comments while at the same time answering legitimate question from online visitors. Moreover, he may ask commentators to respond to relevant questions raised earlier. Whenever a good discussion emerges, the journalist should be the first to recognize it and to encourage everyone to contribute to it. In many cases, these strategies may also help the website owners achieve the objective of encouraging people to spend more time on the website. As an individual waits for the moderator’s response on an ongoing discussion, he may be interested in learning more about the responses that the moderator may have made to other people’s comments. This serves as an excellent way of encouraging the individual to stick along the line of constructive debate. In such a situation, the likelihood of uncivil comments being made becomes highly unlikely.

According to Loke, journalist participation does not change the number of comments that online readers and viewers leave on the website (238). Nevertheless, it does affect the amount of time spent on the web page and more importantly, the civility of the comments made. Loke’s study found out that the way the post was constructed greatly influenced the civility of comments (238). More civil comments were yielded whenever posts that took the form of close-ended questions were presented at the end of the article (Loke, 240). On the other hand, incivility increased whenever journalists prompted online visitors to comment without asking any question (Loke, 240). However, Loke urges researchers to subject this last finding to further scrutiny (241).

In articles where journalists participate in the discussion, one would expect readers and online visitors to be motivated to leave insightful, thoughtful comments. This is simply because they feel that they are being monitored and that someone who is in a position of authority is waiting to see their contribution to the debate. Moreover, it is only natural that a close-ended question goes a long way in helping the readers focus on the matter at hand. Those who go beyond providing the required “yes” or “no” answer are likely to feel that they have already broken the role of the comment section. To compensate for this violation, they may try and ensure that whatever additional information they give is relevant and civil.

Conclusion

On the overall, journalists must get used to a new public space that takes the form of comment sections. They must resolve the dilemma that they are in and decide whether they should provide a space for dialogue or live in the fear that comment sections will be used as a space for online hate. Fortunately, it is possible for them to provide a platform for open dialogue while at the same time moderating the negative effects of uncivil language. To do this, they simply have to moderate the discussion that unfolds in the comment sections. They have to assert their authority by deleting posts that are off-topic, abusive, inflammatory, or simply unacceptable. Once readers feel that their comments are about to be removed for hurling abuses at other readers, they are likely to change tact and to start using civil language.

Other than encouraging people to be thoughtful about what they share with the world, journalist participation also encourages people to stay on the web page for a longer time. This is likely to act as an incentive for media organizations whose core objective is to get as many people as possible join their readership community. Further research should be undertaken to determine whether better results can be realized in terms of increased use of civil language by supplementing journalists’ participation with a requirement for people to provide their real names before leaving a comment. In conclusion, online comments are a good idea but they need to be moderated by the authors of the articles under discussion for them to be effective.

 

Works Cited

Cenite, Mark & Zhang, Yu. Recommendations for hosting audience comments based on dis­course ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 25.11 (2010): 293-309.

Loke, Jaime. “Old turf, new neighbors: Journalists’ perspectives on their new shared space”. Journalism Practice, 6.4 (2012): 233-249.

Paulussen, Steve and Ugille, Pieter. “User generated content in the newsroom: Professional and organi­zational constraints on participatory journalism”. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 5.1 (2008): 24-41.

Santana, Arthur. “Online readers’ comments represent new opinion pipeline”. Newspaper Research Journal, 32.4 (2011): 66-81.

Sobieraj, Sarah and Berry, Jeffrey. “From incivility to outrage: Political discourse in blogs, talk radio, and cable news”. Political Communication, 28, 19-41.

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