Test Kitchen initiative aims to improve news-site user-comment culture
Recent activity involving reader comments on news websites (especially newspaper websites, it seems) indicates that editors and publishers are fed up with incivility, boorish behavior, and worse by online readers who express their opinions in after-article comments.
- A recent LATimes.com story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulted in a comment thread that got out of control. According to the Times’ “reader representative,” “The comments had moved far beyond the news report and had devolved into personal attacks and hateful speech.” Editors removed the worst comments, and made future comments go through a moderator before they were published.
- The Greeley Tribune (Colorado) and other newspapers in the Swift Communications chain shut down user comments for a period of a couple months in order to rethink public participation online and come up with a way (and a better system) to keep article comment threads civil.
- YakimaHerald.com (Washington state) has similar problems, and shut down its article reader-commenting system. Recently the Yakima Herald-Tribune’s editor wrote on the site, “Over the next few weeks, we will be testing a new system that requires commenters to use their real names; we intend to put the new system in place sometime in July.”
A list of news websites with user-comment problems could get quite long, but often the core problem is that news organizations, like those above, allow online commenters to publish their opinions anonymously, and with no moderation by editors before the comments appear online. That has been the norm at the majority of news websites, where rather than editors and reporters actively engaging in comment threads and aggressively policing the conversations, readers are instead asked to tag abusive or hateful comments, which alerts editors to take a look and perhaps remove a comment.
Clearly, that approach is not working, judging by the growing number of news sites that are shutting down user commenting or putting it on hiatus in order to fix the problem.
Is it a problem? Shouldn’t we allow the “riff-raff” their say, even if they express themselves crudely? (This was an argument I spotted expressed on the LATimes.com reader representative’s column about the Israeli-Palestinian comments brouhaha; the commenter suggested that for LATimes.com to change policies to make reader comments be more “civil” was elitist, and would leave news-website comments populated only by “elitists.”)
That argument can be dismissed easily, because evidence is mounting that when news websites don’t try to control or “civilize” their user comment threads, there is a negative impact on the news organizations. At newspapers with the worst of this type of problem, reporters sometimes find that sources for stories are reluctant to be quoted, fearing that their names will be sullied in unruly article comment threads. A newspaper editor told this writer that his organization had trouble recruiting a community columnist because the person was afraid that the comments culture on the website was so unpleasant and crude that he didn’t want to subject himself to continual abuse by commenters.
Is the solution to require commenters to identify themselves by name and location, since anonymity allows the worst in people to be expressed without consequence? It likely is one of many elements in solving the problem, but the problem is too complex for such a simple change to have a big impact.
At the Digital Media Test Kitchen, we are conducting research aimed at guiding news publishers. The aim is to develop recommendations and techniques that will facilitate and encourage public expression on news websites, while at the same time preventing incivility, hate speech, et al, and fostering a culture where commenters respect each other even if they disagree.
The research project is being conducted in collaboration with the Greeley Tribune and Swift Communications, which is based in Reno, Nevada. The goal is that our research, ideation, and recommendations to the Tribune and Swift executives will guide them to making a decision on reopening newspaper-website comment threads that will change the culture and promote civil public conversation within the sites’ comment threads. Of course, we hope that the outcome of this project will serve as a useful guide to other news websites wrestling with their own user-comment problems.
CU-Boulder Journalism & Mass Communication graduate student Anthony Collebrusco is the lead researcher on the project, and he’ll be sharing parts of his research as they are completed. So keep watching this website for more to come soon.
It’s important to mention that many other people and entities in the world of media are concerned about the comments problem and are working on possible solutions. One high-profile initiative is the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, which as one of its three initial primary challenges is seeking ideas for improving online user communication; the program is called “Beyond User Comments.”
That challenge has attracted 129 submissions, with many innovative solutions included; new idea submissions no longer are being accepted, but public voting on the submissions is under way. The Test Kitchen submitted two of the ideas:
- Add a “topic cloud” to the top of each comment thread
- Extracting excerpts from best comments for highlight widget
Do you have ideas for solving the chaotic, out-of-control user-comments on news websites problem? Please share your ideas and thoughts in the comments area below. … And do I really need to say it? Please keep your comments civil!