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Online Comments and Journalism

Summary and Keywords

Shortly after its emergence as a tool for participatory journalism, online commenting became a popular format for audience public discourse and a subject of controversy for professional journalists. The early 21st century has seen a constant growth in research considering how online comments have influenced journalism by providing new ways to understand the perspective of the audience, by changing the routines and practices of the newsroom, and by encouraging a reconsideration of how content influences readers. News audiences, generally, have been relatively quiet and passive in the past, but online comments have given them the opportunity to speak alongside journalists on professional platforms. This shift in news-mediated public discourse has the potential to reshape the journalist−audience relationship in substantial ways. The research on commenting has provided new evidence on how journalistic practices are changing, how people perceive and process information online, and how journalists negotiate technological change while trying not to upend the profession. However, there is a need for more research that explores critical questions related to comment quality, changing journalistic norms, and the relationship between journalist identity and technology. Online commenting has the potential to help fulfill the journalistic norms of providing a space for public discourse and promoting diverse views from within the community. This potential, however, is reliant upon journalists who uphold the civic function of journalism’s role.

Keywords: online comments, public discourse, digital journalism, user-generated content, audience engagement, computer-mediated communication, (in)civility, content moderation, journalism studies

Journalism’s adoption of online commenting has had a significant influence on audience engagement with news and has led to the development of new forms of news routines, organizational policies, and newsroom positions. But it has also pushed journalists to become outspoken about frustrations with audience content while confronting the public with the realities of the viewpoints of people in their communities. Balancing the value of audience engagement with the outcomes that are produced requires consideration of how organizations made choices about how to adopt commenting tools, how journalists monitor and moderate content, and how audience members choose to use commenting tools. The belief that journalism could improve its relationship with the public is not new, but online commenting systems opened a floodgate of audience content with little professional oversight. This article provides an overview of the short history of research on participation in online discussions and then discusses research on commenters, related professional journalism roles and practices, audience information processing of comments, and normative expectations of commenting. The article ends with a discussion of the areas where online commenting research could further develop.

A Short History of Online Commenting and Journalism

As long as the Internet has existed, users have sought ways to use its platforms for discussion and engagement. From the earliest bulletin boards in the 1970s, Usenet in the 1980s, and the forums of the 1990s, commenting has existed in one form or another for decades. With 2000 used as a critical moment in the history of online discourse, the Internet can be seen to have expanded from the forums and bulletin boards of the past to include commenting on sites, blogs, and news stories. At the time, a web forum was defined as “an online public discussion area where users exchange ideas and information” (Mann & Stewart, 2000, p. 219), a definition that still holds today. The Internet has long been celebrated for providing a space for a diversity of viewpoints (Stromer-Galley, 2003), for bringing new participants into discourse (Schneider, 1997), and for opening up new spaces for conversation. But early research also shows that abusive posting, one of the most common contemporary problems, existed long before commenting became common (Dahlberg, 2001).

Early research and commentary about participatory journalism and commenting focused on the changing state of the audience (The American Press Institute, 2003; Rosen, 2006/2011), but then expanded to include studying journalistic practices (Bruns, 2005; Chung, 2008; Domingo et al., 2008) as well as attempting to understand journalist identity and ideology in terms of new audience practices (Deuze, 2008). Then research on commenting took off, and 2008 was a watershed year when research on participatory journalism and commenting expanded substantially to include studies of how commenters discussed specific topics or issues (Örnebring, 2008; Singer, 2009), studies of journalist perspectives on commenters (De Keyser & Sehl, 2011; Paulussen, 2011), and research considering the information processing of comments (Houston, Hansen, & Nisbett, 2011; Lee & Jang, 2010). Then, along with the publication of the book Participatory Journalism (Singer et al., 2011), online commenting became a unique research area within journalism studies.

While history is important for understanding how online comments developed, it is important to acknowledge that modern systems are products of the organizations that developed them, the journalists, and others, who must manage them, and the users who frequent them.

Studying the Commenter

In 2006, Jay Rosen challenged media professionals to be more aware of the coming audience revolution in his article, “The People Formerly Known as the Audience.” At the same time, publishers were introducing commenting and, in the act, unleashing a new tool for audience engagement that would prove many of his prescient statements correct: “The people formerly known as the audience are simply the public made realer, less fictional, more able, less predictable” (Rosen, 2006/2011, paragraph 27). The research on commenters as audience producers of content follows a pattern of looking for specific ideal audience roles and instead discovering a gap between audience and journalist expectations.

The Democratic and Deliberative Functions of Commenting

For many, the introduction of commenting was an opportunity to relive the optimism of the public journalism movement, with journalists seeing the new discourse as a way to pursue democratic and civic goals. The online audience member is understood to be an active audience member, but the more difficult questions revolve around how to define the role of the audience member. Journalists are willing to let audience members have a discussion on a news site as long as they do not try to re-litigate the news content itself (Hermida, 2011), limiting the democratic potential of the discourse.

It is critical to ask whether online comments can serve a deliberative function. Online comments place discourse alongside news content and allow for instantaneous participation, making forums better places for dialogue than letters to the editor. Commenters are more likely than letter writers to use emotional appeals and personal experiences, while letter writers instead act more rationally (Landert & Jucker, 2011), a difference that raises questions about the utility of commenting. The cultural context of the country could also be influential in the quality of deliberation. Countries that adopt a more liberal model of media system (e.g., the United States and the United Kingdom) have discussions with more argumentation, respect, and diversity of ideas, while countries with a more polarized pluralist model (e.g., France, Spain, and Italy) have more homogeneity of ideology and higher levels of agreement in discussions (Ruiz et al., 2011).

In terms of hostility, there is research to suggest that certain types of stories and features in online news can lead to increased hostile behavior. For example, controversial story topics attract more hostile comments from participants (Ksiazek, 2018). Commenters also exhibit more hostile commenting behavior when the story appears to be written from an objective stance with multiple sources or when journalists incorporate multimedia features into the content. One factor, however, that encourages more comments, but also reduces hostility, is having journalists participate in the comments section (Ksiazek, 2018).

The Public’s Voice

While political stories might elicit some of the most hostile audience commentary, there is also interest in whether political comments could represent something more authentic: a form of audience public opinion. In Switzerland, men are more likely than women to post comments, and commenters tend to be older than the average online news audience member, but they also tend to be more conservative (Friemel & Dötsch, 2015). However, Bergstrom (2008), in Sweden, and Meyer and Carey (2014), in the United States, found that younger individuals comment more frequently. While commenters might not represent the broader population ideologically, a more concerning fact is that authors and readers of comments do not appear to recognize the political bias of comments and believe that the conversation is representative of their community’s political beliefs (Friemel & Dötsch, 2015). McCluskey and Hmielowski (2011) found, however, that online comments represent a more balanced mix of community opinions than letters to the editor, potentially because there is less of an editor’s gatekeeping role in the publication of comments.

Rather than representing explicit public opinion, commenting is often seen as a way for individual audience members to contribute to news coverage through the expression of personal viewpoints—a form of interpretation that reflects an individual’s unique experiences with the topic. For example, researchers found that, for stories about science and health, commenters were much more interested in commenting about their personal experiences with the health issue, rather than discussing the scientific evidence presented (Len-Ríos, Bhandari, & Medvedeva, 2014). Journalistic texts often come with a preferred position, whether it be the scientific evidence or the position of elite sources. In contrast, online commenting has allowed for the expression of more perspectives and for the creation of spaces for minorities to redirect conversations away from the strict hierarchies of power and instead to give more people an opportunity to voice their opinions (Douai & Nofal, 2012). The concern, however, is that online commenters often use emotional statements to express opinions on controversial topics, exacerbating concerns about heated debate and agonism online (Aharony, 2012). Additionally, while online commenting forums might create the potential for more voices and more discussion of political issues, the conversations are often dominated by a few vocal individuals, rather than a diverse group of citizens (Singer, 2009).

Audience Participation

There is also a need to consider how commenters are motivated to participate in public discourse, as well as what they claim to gain from participation. Generally, commenters are seeking a space for autonomous discourse with few restrictions, because they see public discourse as a liberating opportunity to challenge authority and to engage in free expression (Reader, 2012). Commenters consume online news to seek information and to be entertained, which are similar reasons for why traditional media consumers engage with print and television news, but commenters also seek out a social experience with others (Chung & Yoo, 2008). While commenters might be seeking a social experience, socializing through online comments brings minimal cognitive gratification (Springer, Engelmann, & Pfaffinger, 2015). Those who seek a social experience are also less likely to come back to news-mediated public discourse, which suggests that those looking for a social experience might be the participants most disappointed by the quality of discourse (Yoo, 2011). Lurkers—those who read comments, but do not participate—are motivated by the entertainment value of comments (Springer et al., 2015) and have low expectations of comments (Nonnecke, Andrews, & Preece, 2006). However, lurkers believe they could make a positive contribution to the discussion, but they refuse to participate (Nonnecke et al., 2006). Further research is needed to understand the motivations behind why someone might choose not to participate despite feeling that they have something to offer to the conversation.

Commenters also use forums to criticize journalism and to express a preferred type of relationship between producers and audiences online. While journalists might frequently dismiss audience members as outside the profession, an analysis of comments in response to ombudsman columns shows commenters supporting traditional journalism norms and values like objectivity (Craft, Vos, & Wolfgang, 2016). Readers, generally, are capable of distinguishing between the ideals of journalism and its practice in reality (Slavtcheva-Petvoka, 2016). There appears to be some agreement between journalists and commenters about journalist role conceptions and the importance of participatory journalism; however, journalists stress the importance of public engagement through discourse while commenters prefer to use forums to express themselves with limited oversight (Heise, Loosen, Reimer, & Schmidt, 2014). Commenters prefer to use forums to reinterpret facts and historical events and to express personal narratives about events, but commenters lack a collective, coherent voice, making it difficult for them to influence professional norms (Robinson, 2015). When commenters choose to criticize the practices of journalism, they come with a developed understanding of the existing professional roles and practices and appear to be capable of critiquing practices, or at least to be willing to understand the profession in a way that journalists might be dismissive toward.

Researchers have frequently attempted to explicate the role of the commenter in public discourse in idealistic terms, including expecting quality deliberation or for the audience to express a form of public opinion. However, research tends to show that audience members more frequently use online forums to build community, to express personal experiences and perspectives, and to critique journalists.

Considering the Role of Journalists and News Organizations

Turning the focus from the commenter to the journalist, there are three traditional forms of research considering the role of journalists and news organizations: the journalist’s ideology and professional role, journalist routines related to commenting, and organizational choices about commenting. It is appropriate to start with a consideration of how professional ideology informs how journalists think about commenters, negotiate their professional identity, and respond to the influence of participatory journalism.

Journalist Ideology and Professional Role

Online commenting accelerated an ongoing transition in newsrooms toward an audience-centric model. Journalists are now expected to manage a personal online presence through social media and to look for ways to engage with their audience (Robinson, 2011). A majority of journalists believe that commenting is a necessary tool for promoting audience voices in journalism, but that it also brings out some of the worst voices in the community (Nielsen, 2012). However, news organizations have failed to develop guidelines or policies that clearly define how commenting should function and how it should be enforced (Loke, 2012). Furthermore, while journalists see new online practices as an infringement on professional norms, research shows that the profession is slowly adapting to participatory forms of content, rather than rapidly abandoning traditional practices and values (Karlsson, 2011). So, while journalists might state a need to develop new relationships with their audiences through online tools, the reality is that few journalists genuinely engage with audience members and the task is diffused among only a few newsroom staffers (Paulussen, 2011).

News organizations consider new participatory practices and platforms in terms of the amount of journalistic resources that will have to be devoted to the practice as well as how much potential it will have to create revenue for the organization (Hermida & Thurman, 2008). This is one reason why journalists have held on to traditional professional norms—in order to maintain the authority and credibility of the news organization, while still monetizing the new technology. Journalists are concerned about the potential reputational damage that can happen to the organization if they allow the audience to freely use their website for community conversation (Singer & Ashman, 2009). Because of professional and ethical concerns about the quality of commenter content and its impact on the organization, journalists frequently relegate commenters to a reduced role online—allowing them to append interpretation and analysis to existing stories, but journalists are reluctant to allow their users to exert some form of power over the content they produce (Singer, 2011). Wahl-Jorgensen (2015) refers to this practice as cooptation and segregation: journalists openly welcome online comments as a valuable contribution and as a source of revenue, but then they often segregate commenter content from journalistic content by placing it on a separate webpage or by making the user take some action, such as clicking a link to see all the comments. This dual practice allows journalists to seem to welcome audience contributions without having to associate too closely with the commenter.

Journalistic Practices and Routines

Journalists have been slow to adapt to an audience role that incorporates a more collaborative relationship between audience and journalists. Also, while professionals might welcome more dialogue with their readers, this doesn’t mean journalists are very willing to give power to the audience to influence content creation and the journalistic process (Heinonen, 2011). Many journalists would prefer to outsource commenting to other platforms, like Facebook or Twitter, but commenters actually prefer the ability to engage with other audience members and with journalists on the news organization’s website (Hille & Bakker, 2014). The journalist’s willingness to accept audience participation can depend on the journalist’s philosophy. Robinson (2010) discussed the difference between “traditionalists,” veteran journalists who maintain a hierarchical relationship with the audience, and “convergers,” newer journalists who are more willing to work with the audience and to provide them with the freedom to engage in discourse online. This division is more than just philosophical, though, because it also impacts policy choices and practices and routines in the newsroom, depending on the philosophy of the newsroom leaders.

Journalists adopt strategies for how to manage user-generated content, but these strategies, which are not neutral practices, could influence the quality of the discourse (Domingo, 2011). Journalists, and others in the newsroom who assist with moderating content, seek out simplistic heuristics for making moderation decisions in order to manage their time so they can focus on other work. This means that the moderation policy as outlined is rarely used effectively or consistently (Wolfgang, 2018). Having explicit policies about how to moderate content can help to explain to the commenters the rules of the forum, but when journalists are transparent about the actual practice of removing content, this can backfire by making commenters more critical of potential censorship (Sherrick & Hoewe, 2018). Some have argued for allowing commenters to participate in moderation by having them flag problematic comments, and research shows that audience members are more likely to help moderate content and to trust journalists to remove problematic comments when the audience is given explicit guidance about how to best flag comments (Naab, Kalch, & Meitz, 2018).

Many of the issues related to comment moderation relate back to questions about the appropriate role for journalists acting as gatekeepers of content. When Axel Bruns published his book Gatewatching in 2005, our understanding of user-generated content, and what it would become, was limited. Bruns (2005) introduced the idea of turning gatekeeping into a practice oriented to the selection and management of content in order to develop a curated report with additional context, rather than focusing on picking and choosing each individual item for publication. Further, he noted that future curation would move toward automated practices of using algorithms to apply journalistic principles to audience content. Since 2005, this idea has slowly transitioned toward reality. Gatekeeping in a commenting context involves journalist choices about content, topics, issues, and, especially, people. Journalists face the dilemma of making choices about whether to silence specific individuals or to allow the conversation to play out without interference (Braun & Gillespie, 2011). Journalists have developed gatekeeping practices for moderating online comments that include applying professional norms of quality to comments, including making sure the content provides context, is civil, and is readable (McElroy, 2013). Journalists are creating, then, a curated set of preferred comments based on their professional values (Diakopoulos, 2015). Additionally, news organizations are developing algorithmic tools to take over the moderation process; machine learning algorithms can be trained based on journalists’ decisions about whether to publish or censor a comment and the underlying criteria informing these decisions (Diakopoulos, 2015).

Professional journalism practices and routines are quite stable and resistant to rapid change despite the introduction of new tools and practices like interactive online features (Domingo, 2008). Rather than quickly adopting entirely new practices for audience engagement, journalists and news organizations developed participatory journalism tools as a way for the audience to engage with one another, and then they quickly set aside certain aspects of the news production process as off limits to the audience (Domingo et al., 2008). Journalists then adapted traditional professional norms into participatory journalism practices. For instance, keeping the audience at a distance and placing professional expectations on audience content (Williams, Wahl-Jorgensen, & Wardle, 2011). This is because journalists have historically treated public discourse merely as potential content that should be vetted by journalists before publication, but in order to adopt this content in its original form as valuable to journalism, there has to be a “significant psychological shift” on the part of professionals that would include new policies, training, and professional routines and practices (Wardle & Williams, 2010). While journalists have taken great steps to normalize online comments into the practices of online journalism over the past decade, there is still a lack of quality interaction between professionals and the audience (Canter, 2013; Graham & Wright, 2015; Singer, 2009).

The Role of the Organization

While almost every news organization has an exhaustive policy governing how online forums can be used, the policies merely help the organizations police certain troubling behaviors rather than help journalists to build a better forum for discourse (Wolfgang, 2016). Research has shown that certain organizational policy choices can encourage a more civil conversation, including requiring users to register, implementing a reputation management system, and engaging in comprehensive moderation both before and after comments have been posted (Ksiazek, 2015). However, organizations lack clear internal policies about how to best moderate discussions and to make decisions about how to remove content or commenters. This leaves individual journalists with the autonomy to decide how to best moderate specific conversations, leading to inconsistencies (Canter, 2013). The lack of clear and consistent policies governing both structural website elements and moderator practices leaves journalists with fewer tools to effectively build a quality conversation. For example, rather than develop a clear policy or set of best practices for moderating comments, journalists have developed individualized routines that are inconsistent within newsrooms and make it difficult for new moderators to be trained. While journalists state that they appreciate audience participation, professionals make it difficult for the audience to effectively engage with one another by adopting traditional routines of journalism and applying them to audience content, therefore limiting the audience’s ability to do things like report errors, submit their own content, or contact reporters directly (Bachmann & Harlow, 2012).

The introduction of participatory journalism has helped transform the way journalists perceive their role, produce their work, and consider their audiences. While this change has created divisions within journalism about whether the audience is contributing to, or harming, the profession and whether journalists could do more to collaborate with commenters, it has become a reality that the audience will have a larger voice, and journalists can either incorporate this voice into their own news ecology or push it to other spaces online.

Studying How Readers Process Online Comments

There is a concern, beyond threats to journalistic autonomy and authority, that online comments might influence a reader’s perception of the news topic, their understanding of public opinion on an issue, and potentially their attitudes and behaviors. Research has shown that the topic of a news story can influence whether the reader is persuaded by the comments associated with the story. A reader who is less involved with the news topic is more susceptible to the persuasive influence of comments than a reader who has a high level of involvement with the topic (Winter & Krämer, 2016). Furthermore, some readers are more willing to change their perception of public opinion after reading an overwhelming number of comments that support a position (Lee, 2012). While this doesn’t mean readers change their opinion on a topic, they might be influenced based on whether they agree with the perceived majority or minority view on that issue. Other commenters can also influence how a reader might comment. For instance, the presence of prejudiced comments increases the likelihood that others will leave a prejudiced comment. However, if the conversation has a social norm of antiprejudiced comments, other commenters are more likely to leave antiprejudiced comments as well (Hsueh, Yogeeswaran, & Malinen, 2015). There is also growing research into how valenced reader comments might influence readers. von Sikorski and Hanelt (2016) found that positively valenced reader comments on a news story about a scandal have more of an effect on reader perceptions than negative comments. This could be because the scandal primes readers to see the story in a negative light, but positive comments help to create nuance and convince readers to see the issue as more complex. This increases the need for vibrant discussions of difficult and controversial topics because contrary viewpoints and opinions can be influential in a discussion.

Anonymity has traditionally been one of the most heavily critiqued aspects of online commenting on most sites. Journalists have criticized anonymity as leading to uncivil comments, flaming, and trolling. There is some research to support the belief that anonymous comments are more uncivil (Santana, 2014), but whether anonymity is the real culprit is still up for debate. In a comparison of commenting policies between those requiring users to provide their real name or merely encouraging people to voluntarily link their social media account to their commenting account, the voluntary policy led to a decrease in negative behaviors like flaming, while requiring people to provide their real name actually increased flaming (Cho & Kwon, 2015). And in an experiment to determine what causes aggressive behavior in online commenting, researchers found that the presence of a social norm of aggressive behavior by others played a greater role in increasing aggression from commenters than whether the forum was anonymous (Rösner & Krämer, 2016). The research suggests that merely requiring people to use their real names will not necessarily improve the quality of the forum, but instead organizations should consider alternative means to get commenters to be more forthcoming. Organizations also need enforceable policies that dictate acceptable behaviors, rather than relying on simplistic policy choices like requiring people to use their real name to fix the problem.

(In)Civility as a Proxy for (Poor) Quality

One of the most studied areas in the topic of online commenting and information processing is civility. Researchers seek to understand what effects incivility could potentially have for readers, journalists, and news organizations and whether the impacts justify restricting commenting. Research has shown that readers perceive commenters who post uncivil comments less favorably and have lower levels of trust in their information (Graf, Erba, & Harn, 2017). Furthermore, incivility in comments can cause readers to increase their perception of the bias of the news content (Anderson, Yeo, Brossard, Scheufele, & Xenos, 2016). In terms of the public’s perception of incivility in discourse, readers believe that name-calling and vulgarity are the most uncivil types of speech, and women are more sensitive to incivility than men (Kenski, Coe, & Rains, 2017). As for how readers perceive incivility and its persuasive potential, Chen and Ng (2016) found that there is a third-person perception effect (TPP) for civil comments—where readers believe the message will influence others, but not themselves—however, there is no TPP for uncivil comments, raising questions about whether people believe that uncivil comments can persuade.

Reading uncivil comments can increase a reader’s hostility and anger, but, interestingly, this effect does not increase with the presence of more incivility, so just one uncivil comment can trigger and maintain the hostility (Rösner, Winter, & Krämer, 2016). Further research tells us that disagreement in an online forum—whether civil or uncivil—triggers negative emotions and can increase the aggressive intentions of the reader, but uncivil disagreement is most likely to spur a reader to respond with further incivility (Chen & Lu, 2017). People see uncivil disagreement as having a greater impact on negative emotions than civil disagreement. Also, readers believe that uncivil disagreement will have a greater effect on the negative emotions of others rather than themselves (Chen & Ng, 2017). Incivility is widespread in news discourse, but it is most frequent with stories about controversial topics and with stories that include a high-profile source who has a strong partisan stance (a prominent political leader, for instance). Despite the perception that there is an overwhelming amount of incivility, incivility is predictable: it almost always comes in the form of name-calling and as a response to controversial articles and sources (Coe, Kenski, & Rains, 2014). Controversial stories might be a target of incivility because of political division, but research also shows that online incivility can further polarize readers based on their previously held beliefs about the topic (Anderson, Brossard, Scheufele, Xenos, & Ladwig, 2014). Uncivil messages could potentially push people to strengthen their support for the comments congruent with their beliefs. In order to reduce incivility, many have suggested that journalists take more action to engage with commenters—especially those who are uncivil—to de-escalate the tension and to help create more productive conversations. Ziegele and Jost (2016) looked to see what types of journalist responses to uncivil comments were most effective at promoting participation by others, and they found that responding with factual comments in order to correct inaccuracies can increase the willingness of others to participate by making the conversation appear more deliberative. They also found that sarcastic responses to uncivil comments could actually decrease participation rates, as readers see the news outlet and its stories as being less credible.

Research has shown that commenters can influence other audience members, but scholars are just beginning to understand the extent of these influences on beliefs, values, behaviors, and attitudes toward journalists and issues. Recognizing how comments might influence others helps provide a stronger normative argument for why comments need to be better understood and more carefully implemented. This research could be a critical gateway for developing new policies and tools for comment moderation.

Setting Expectations of Quality in Online Commenting

Not long after the introduction of commenting, professionals started considering ways to improve audience interaction. The considerations focused on three common themes: identifying the quality attributes of online comments and seeking to prompt quality participation from the audience, setting expectations of civility in order to promote a more civil and respectful form of discourse, and recognizing the most problematic comments as a way to encourage more action from professionals.

There are many studies of the current state of online comments and how journalists perceive user content, but fewer studies have focused on understanding how commenting can be structured to elicit higher quality participation. Research suggests that readers are motivated to engage in different behaviors based on the type of article. For instance, a reader is more motivated to comment on an article if it is about a political or social topic or if it is controversial, while a reader is more motivated to click on a news item if it is about a sensational or novel topic (Tenenboim & Cohen, 2015). A story that is high in news value can also drive more people to participate and increase the amount of interactivity among commenters (Weber, 2014). However, Ziegele and Quiring (2013) proposed looking at news value along with the quality and volume of the existing conversation to determine whether a reader will choose to participate. Researchers also found that the comments that received the most responses were controversial comments, comments that included unexpected viewpoints, and comments that were personalized to specific individuals in the forum (Ziegele, Breiner, & Quiring, 2014). These studies might provide mixed results on how to elicit quality participation, but, broadly, they show that journalists should be focused on specific types of stories and encouraging specific types of quality behavior in order to best use organizational resources to improve commenting.

Studying civility in comparison to a negative outcome like hostility might offer a way to compare idealistic expectations with realities. Ksiazek, Peer, and Zivic (2015) found that civility outweighs hostility in conversations on stories that include a professionally produced news video, as opposed to citizen journalism, as well as on news stories that included a news source. This suggests that following professional journalism practices might help to reduce the negative outcomes of commenting. What can make hostility more difficult for journalists, though, is that commenters often target journalists individually for engaging in unprofessional practices and for falling short of many journalistic norms, including credibility, trust, and ethics (Neurauter-Kessels, 2011).

There is also concern about the types of problematic comments that can seem to overrun online news forums. Some of the most negative comments are often posted on stories that deal with race, but researchers have found that commenters will also frequently attempt to inject race into a story by making assumptions based on the name of a story subject (Harlow, 2015). But criticism also extends to journalists. Researchers looking at content at The Guardian found that articles written by women, minorities, and LGBT individuals received significantly more negative comments than stories written by straight white men (Gardiner et al., 2016). Journalists have to struggle with how to moderate negative, insensitive, racist, and other negative commenting practices without appearing to suppress speech that might reflect the actual beliefs and values of some in society. This problem pits the interests of journalists in creating a welcoming forum against the community’s need to be exposed to the truth about the people who live there (Loke, 2013).

Commenting research has often focused on some of the worst commenting behavior, like incivility, in order to understand what the audience doesn’t want from public discourse. However, there is a growing trend toward looking at specific attributes of stories or personality characteristics of commenters that helps explain why certain stories receive more comments or why certain individuals participate. This research into the motivations of users could help promote new discussions of quality commenting behavior and how to encourage better participation, rather than merely identifying poor behavior.

Advancing the Research on Commenting in Journalism

Research on journalism and online commenting has grown over the past decade and become a common area for inquiry, but there are a number of ways that scholarship could develop to investigate new problems, to consider alternative solutions, and to challenge assumptions. Research has consistently focused on questions like how to encourage better discourse, how to serve the interests of participants, how to get more citizens to participate, and how to understand the changing journalism practice online. While the broad questions about online comments might not change much, the way these questions are considered could lead to new answers and ideas.

Encouraging Quality Discourse

Incivility can have a serious negative impact on how people consume content, but incivility can come in many forms and some forms are more prevalent than others. What is needed now is more research that looks at the distinct types of incivility to understand who produces it, why, and what specific impacts it can have. This could mean studying the specific outcomes of name-calling, ad hominem attacks, hostility, and vulgarity; however, there is also a lack of research that distinguishes civility and incivility in a way that acknowledges that most content is neither. Similar to incivility, civility represents a narrow slice of content that, in this case, meets the highest quality expectations. Most research avoids defining civility in conceptual terms, for instance, its relationship to social or civic norms. The field could potentially be served by more research on the exemplars of discourse to understand who creates the best content, what attributes of a story attract the highest-quality comments, and how this content might affect readers.

How Can Journalists Better Serve Readers?

Journalists, ideally, think of commenting as serving a democratic and civic function. However, from the commenter perspective, it does not always serve this purpose. Maybe journalism’s function in discourse needs to be reconsidered from a broader perspective. The focus on democratic functions obfuscates the potential for commenting to serve audiences in a variety of ways. Journalists often make assumptions about the interests and motivations of their audience members. But in terms of commenting, more research is needed on the potential audience for comments. What are they looking for from commenting? Are they knowledgeable about the topic, and are they seeking further information? Or are they merely looking to be entertained? It is known that commenters use emotional appeals and testimonials to make arguments, and it is also recognized that journalist facilitation of discourse helps to reduce problems, so maybe it becomes necessary to study how journalists and others can best moderate comments that are subjective and testimonial rather than merely appreciating objective content. Journalists often apply traditional journalistic norms to comment moderation, which means they favor objective statements to subjective commentary, but could they be better trained to help facilitate conversations that include personal opinions and perspectives to help promote a better community conversation?

While online comments have helped democratize news-mediated public discourse beyond traditional forms like the letter to the editor, there is still a need for discourse to develop in its ability to represent the voices of underserved communities. This will challenge journalists to rethink their normative role to promote the voices of diverse community members and to seek out diversity in reporting. For journalists, this will mean developing policies and tools for discourse that encourage participation from historically underrepresented groups. This includes recognizing how anonymity can help promote participation by marginalized groups and encouraging participation by those who historically do not participate.

Comment Moderation

Moderators consistently express frustration with trying to manage online conversations along with all the other tasks they have to complete. In terms of journalist moderators, the simple response that journalists should spend more time engaging with their audience and developing an online community is unrealistic, given how most journalists prioritize their work and how few resources they have for monitoring and moderating content. This is in contrast to research that shows that having journalists participate in, and facilitate, online discourse can substantially improve quality. But how might these journalist actions help improve specific discourse outcomes, including moving the discussion forward, seeking solutions to community issues, and combating problematic commenters? The more that research shows how journalists can improve commenting through active facilitation of conversation, the more likely it will be that organizations will devote resources to facilitating discourse.

Much of the research on comment moderation has looked at how journalists make decisions about content, but what is missing is a focus on how to prime commenters to produce higher-quality submissions. Are there ways to encourage better participation from those who consistently try to derail conversations? Or are there ways to encourage participation from lurkers who watch the conversation but never participate because they believe the quality is too low?

Solving problems related to comment moderation will require a much more nuanced understanding of the complex nature of online engagement. Rather than looking for simplistic responses, like banning commenters or requiring all comments to be pre-moderated, this might require increased resources for active participation by moderators and journalists. While algorithmic tools like automated comment moderation might help journalists to more effectively monitor discourse, algorithms are still a simplistic response to an incredibly complex problem.

Journalist Practices

Research shows that journalists, generally, speak dismissively of online comments, but endorse the idea of providing a space for public discourse. What is needed, though, is more consideration of the specific choices journalists and news organizations make to negotiate this distinction. For instance, journalists engage in cooptation and segregation of commenter content (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2015), but how are journalists finding new ways to distance the organization from comments while still welcoming this content? Also, what steps are journalists taking to make it clear that this content should be considered differently from professional content? Do these actions actually change the way journalists consider the threat of reputational harm from commenting?

Despite statements from journalists dismissing commenters, it is recognized that some commenters use online forums to engage in legitimate criticism of professional journalism. Commenters seem to understand the norms and values of the field and appear to recognize the ideals of journalism, but they might not always understand how these norms are applied in everyday news work. Commenters should be studied for their role as a voice of criticism and as individuals interested in making journalism better. This would also mean studying how journalists respond to attacks on themselves and their work, which could lead to understanding how they can best interact with commenters who are frustrated with media professionals.

Online commenting can have several effects on journalism, such as changes in routines and practices, as well as changes to newsroom structure. One way that researchers could respond to these changes is by focusing on the effects comments could have on those journalists who interact with commenters the most and by studying occupational stress, emotional labor, newsroom resources, and time-management skills. Journalists have long discussed the stressful aspects of the profession: how could the stress be different or the same for those who monitor and moderate content every day?

Furthermore, organizations have a great deal of power to structure commenting in terms of their organizational goals and interests. The choices that journalists make, though, are a result of a combination of policy choices and individual practices. Research often tends to focus on one factor or the other—either seeing commenting as a product of policies or as an outcome of journalist practices. Scholarship needs to consider organizational policies in tandem with individual routines and practices. Ideally, the path forward would include research that considers how journalists use policy to make decisions, how policy is implemented into practices and routines, and how audience members might be able to contribute to the development of more effective policy. In addition, research that looks at how to create more effective design for commenting forums, how to get buy-in from professional journalists, and how to increase organizational resources for commenting could help move the conversation forward.

Conclusion

The early 21st century has seen research on journalism and online commenting go from a novel subject area to a burgeoning topic that is a consistent presence in journalism scholarship. Comments serve many research functions, including understanding how news organizations consider their audiences and how researchers can better understand the perspectives of the active audience online. While some news organizations have moved away from online commenting, the growth in new technological tools for moderating and managing online comments suggests that the topic will continue to be explored in journalism research.

The next phase of journalism research on commenting will need to explore new questions to push scholarship forward on critical issues like journalistic norms, technological tools, and civility in discourse. Deeper exploration of civility and its role in online discourse is needed in order to understand what distinguishes quality conversations from bad ones. The field needs to push the conversation about the normative role of journalists beyond simply looking at how journalists are dismissive of online comments and should aim to understand deep-seated concerns about audience influence. Journalism’s pursuit of technological tools to help with comment moderation raises questions about how to refocus the conversation on quality, rather than on trolls and toxicity. In addition, more research is needed on how news organizations build spaces for discourse around organizational and corporate interests and motivations.

Journalism’s relationship with online commenting has often been fraught with concerns about quality and utility, and many news organizations have removed commenting or severely limited its use, but those who have kept commenting, or who have increased the resources devoted to it, express a broad normative interest in protecting the public’s interest in journalism and public discourse. Whether the journalism field continues to support the normative goal of engaging the public in discourse about community issues is partly dependent upon research that continues to actively support the public’s interest in engaging in civic life.

Further Reading

Anderson, A., Brossard, D., Scheufele, D., Xenos, M., & Ladwig, P. (2014). The “nasty effect:” online incivility and risk perceptions of emerging technologies. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19, 373–387.Find this resource:

    Bruns, A. (2005). Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production. New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

      Coe, K., Kenski, K., & Rains, S. A. (2014). Online and Uncivil? Patterns and Determinants of Incivility in Newspaper Website Comments. Journal of Communication, 64, 658–679.Find this resource:

        Ksiazek, T. B. (2018). Commenting on the news. Journalism Studies, 19(5), 650–673.Find this resource:

          Robinson, S. (2015). Redrawing borders from within: Commenting on news stories as boundary work. In M. Carlson, & S. Lewis (Eds.) Boundaries of Journalism: Professionalism, Practices and Participation. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

            Rösner, L., & Krämer, N. C. (2016). Verbal Venting in the Social Web: Effects of Anonymity and Group Norms on Aggressive Language Use in Online Comments. Social Media + Society, 2(3), 1–13.Find this resource:

              Singer, J., Hermida, A., Domingo, D., Heinonen, A., Paulussen, S., Quandt, T., Reich, Z., & Vujnovic, M. (2011). Participatory Journalism: Guarding open gates at online newspapers. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

                Slavtcheva-Petvoka, V. (2016). “We Are Not Fools”: Online News Commentators’ Perceptions of Real and Ideal Journalism. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 21(1), 68–87.Find this resource:

                  Springer, N., Engelmann, I., & Pfaffinger, C. (2015). User comments: motives and inhibitors to write and read. Information, Communication & Society, 18(7), 798–815.Find this resource:

                    Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2015). Resisting epistemologies of user-generated content? Cooptation, segregation and the boundaries of journalism. In M. Carlson, & S. Lewis (Eds.) Boundaries of Journalism: Professionalism, Practices and Participation. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

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