The promise of user comments is how readers can provide insightful, and sometimes surprising, information that changes the way we cover the news. However, too often, user comments can be a wasteland of hate, ignorance and rants. More often than not that happens because we—journalists, editors, and producers—don’t pay enough attention to creating a welcoming and interesting place for user to participate in our work. We have some suggestions on how to turn that around and make our comment spaces useful to both journalists and the audience.
Here’s the thing that almost anyone who has spent time moderating comments for a website knows: most comments are terrible. They are racist, mean-spirited and hateful—and even the ones that have good intentions are often simply uneducated.
Yet, user contributions have powered some of the most intriguing journalistic projects to appear in recent years, like the Guardian’s Tracking the Trackers project or like National Geographic’s Life in a Day film project.
In each of those cases, user comments provided valuable information that we could share to enhance our coverage, helped direct us to the type of information and coverage we should do to best serve our audience and allowed our audience to engage in healthy discussion with each other.
In the best case scenarios, that is what comments can and should do. They allow our users to tell us what they want out of us, which we can incorporate into our decision making about what stories and what angles to cover in order to better serve our audiences.
Example: The Student Union asked the audience what topics they wanted to know about. One of the answers was medical school. The article that resulted is the site’s most popular ever.
Comments can allow us to get perspectives and information from people we might never otherwise have access to, or never otherwise think to ask, which can greatly enhance our coverage.
Example: NPR was reporting a story about people who lose items of sentimental value to theft. They asked their Facebook audience to share stories of having this happen. They ended up getting great content to build into their article.
Example: PBS wanted to find out whether heightened security at airports was actually causing the predicted catastrophic delays. They reached out to their audience, asking them simply to report how long it took them to get through security, creating a nationwide picture of the situation.
Comments can allow users to engage in discussion with each other and with our journalists, to create an environment of thinking and learning.
But, that’s in the best-case scenarios. We all know that too often we find ourselves in the worst-case scenarios.
So what’s the difference? Why does one article about al-Shabab get nasty comments and another get a genuinely useful response?
The difference is attention. In places where you are explicitly encouraging conversation, directing the conversation with specific questions, getting involved with the comments thread, and feeding comments back into your coverage, good conversations will develop. In places where commenters know they are simply shouting into an abyss, only those with something extreme to say will bother saying anything at all.
I heard an incredible analogy—third- or fourth-hand—comparing comments to cities: “there are abandoned alleys, and you should expect vandalism there.” (If anyone knows where this comes from, I’d love to cite it properly.)
The problem with comments, just like with cities, is that you simply cannot pay attention to everything. Or, you could, but it would entail a colossal misallocation of resources leaving you unable to do much else.
What you can do, however, is create several thriving, healthy neighborhoods – sections of your site where positive conversation thrives. Think of them as corners that are dedicated to valuing user comments and using them to make coverage better.
The key requirements for building these areas of great community?
Picking topics with passion
People are more likely to want to discuss topics that they feel passionate about, and are more likely to engage if they feel that you are passionate about it as well. Some stories and topics are simply never going to be candidates for generating lively discussion, and that’s okay. Focus on generating conversation around the topics you can do well and that your particular audience wants to talk about.
One thing you can do is use editorial meetings to think through what stories are likely to generate discussion, or could be enhanced by gaining feedback from the audience. Would first person stories make your feature more interesting? Would it help your coverage to understand what your audience wants to know?
Asking these types of questions can help you figure out where to put your attention in terms of soliciting and incorporating audience feedback and can help you decide what type of audience feedback would help you provide better coverage.
Providing clear direction
The clearer idea you give people of how you expect them to participate, the more likely they are to contribute in a way that makes you happy…and the more likely they are to contribute at all. People simply respond better to clear instructions than to open-ended invitations.
If you want responses to an article or blog post, end with a question specifically intended to solicit feedback. If you want user-generated photos, ask for them around a specific topic or theme.
In addition, think about how you’re framing your calls to action. Think of the difference between these two questions:
(1) What do you think about the state of the economy?;
(2) Have you had to make any changes to your lifestyle as a result of the global recession?
It’s not hard to see which one is more compelling and is more likely to get a valuable response.
The more direction you give about what you want, the more likely you are to get it.
When a reporter can take ownership over a particular blog or beat, they also have more incentive to value the comments and commenters that grow up around it.
Reporters with ownership over a topic can start to build an integrated approach to their content, using access to all inputs (including comments) to decide what stories to pitch, getting involved in their community by responding to commenters and listening to what commenters have to say, and building feedback back into editorial decisions.
Let’s be clear: comments will NEVER replace traditional reporting. They cannot and should not. But what they can be is a valuable input alongside all our other methods of deciding what we cover and shaping how we cover it.
On big news sites like ours it’s impossible to value every comment all the time. There will always be alleys of neglect—or even whole square miles of neglect. But if we can create small pockets where comments are asked for and answered, and where someone is taking ownership of the conversation, we can create positive conversations that our users want to come back to and want to contribute to.
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(Thank you to Jessica Stahl for her contributions to this post. To contact her: email@example.com)
(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)
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