In mid-August, US public broadcaster, the National Public Radio (NPR) announced it was ditching its comment sections just as the World Editors Forum (WEF), the network for editors within WAN-IFRA, was concluding its second global study on how newsrooms are managing online comments.
NPR joined a growing list of organisations, including CNN, The Verge, Toronto Star, Reuters and Popular Science, which had decided that hosting and managing comment sections on their websites is simply not worth the effort. It was another signal that news organisations are following their audiences onto social media platforms.
This shift marks one of the most significant changes to the online publishing environment since publication in 2013 of the first study by WEF, ‘Online comment moderation: emerging best practices’. In the three years since, newsroom resources have been under even greater pressure, and the temperature of online debate has risen significantly, posing real challenges for newsrooms trying to manage potentially brand-damaging and legally tricky comment sections.
Also in that time span, audiences increasingly read their news on social platforms, particularly on Facebook, forcing newsrooms to adopt specific engagement strategies there, subsequently adding even greater pressure on resources.
Against this backdrop, the 2016 WEF study set out to update best practices and find examples where news organisations are succeeding in promoting constructive conversations with their audiences.
The study sought to determine whether switching off comments on online sites is the best way of managing the problem. In an age where engagement matters, the study questioned the risks of transferring hard-earned audience gains onto social media platforms. Given the potentially toxic and brand-damaging effect of inflammatory comments, it asked whether a comment section is worth investing in and what return, if any, it generates. Are there ways to build a civil and constructive commenting space?
Over three months we engaged a total of 78 organisations in 46 countries through a workshop, interviews and an online survey (for a complete list, go to Appendix II; for an interactive map, click here).
The research found:
- There is evidence of high-profile news organisations shutting down comment sections and moving conversations to social media platforms such as Facebook. However, 82% of those we surveyed still invite their readers to comment on their sites. More than half of those allow comments on all articles, although many are doing so reluctantly and are unhappy with the quality of the comments they receive;
- Closing the comment section is increasingly a strong consideration and option due to the abusive tone and poor quality of comments, as well as concerns about cost of moderation, legal liability and lack of use;
- Most of the news organisations surveyed say comments are important, “adding to the debate” (53%), “providing ideas and input for future stories” (53%) and “encouraging diversity of opinions” (47%);
- While opinion pieces receive the most comments (23%) and analytical articles receive the highest quality responses (26%), topics most likely to attract inflammatory comments differ by region. In Europe immigration tops the list; in Africa, it’s politics and race; in South America, it’s politics; in Asia and the Middle East, it’s politics and religion; and almost anything can stir up incendiary remarks in North America;
- Specific laws concerning the liability of reader comments and hate speech are emerging. Different societal interpretations of ‘freedom of speech’ and its limits, and the country’s stage of democratic development influence the approach news organisations take in managing comments;
- Given the trend to move commenting completely to social media platforms, many are concerned that the inherent issues of comments don’t just go away, compounded with additional issues on the loss of reader relationship and data, the lack of control and possibly, future sustainability;
- A handful of news organisations such as The New York Times and Pakistan’s Dawn are able to maintain a vibrant constructive commenting community through consistent investment in comment moderation, reaping the benefits, not only in terms of reader loyalty, but also in business revenue;
- Despite the challenges, many news organisations continue to look for different ways to engage and solicit comments from their readers through best practices such as:
- Revisiting their mission and making commenting a priority;
- Reducing the number of stories open for comments, enabling tighter, focused moderation and rewarding good commenter behaviour;
- Continuously looking for better technological solutions;
- Building a community and incorporating comments into content.