[IMAGE] A large crowd of people with arms raised, smiling at the camera. In the background is an umbrella that looks like a ladybug. The image appears to have been taken of a crowd at a concert during the day time.

When we told you we care about user research… well, we meant it.

In order to find out how commenters behave and what they want, we decided to ask them. Across 20 different news orgs from around the U.S., in fact, and more than 12,000 people responded in one of the largest surveys ever carried out on commenters across news sites.

We surveyed commenters at Alaska Dispatch News, AL.com, The Arizona Republic, The Atlantic, Civil Beat, The Dallas Morning News, Deseret News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KXAN, PBS NewsHour, Philly.com, The Seattle Times, Southern California Public Radio/KPCC, The State Journal-Register, The Texas Tribune, TribLIVE, Twincities.com / St. Paul Pioneer Press, Voice of San Diego, The Washington Post, and Willamette Week.

The study was conducted for us by The Engaging News Project at the University of Texas-Austin. (Read our interview with its director, Dr Natalie Stroud.) As part of our mission to help newsrooms with audience engagement, each participating organization received a detailed report about their own onsite communities (which nobody else, including us, got to see.)

We’ve learned so much from the results. Among the highlights:

  • More than 70 percent of respondents said they’d like journalists to respond to questions about facts in comment spaces.
  • More than 60 percent said they’d like to see expert opinions in comment threads.
  • Nearly half of respondents said journalists should highlight selected comments.
  • Opinions among regular commenters on whether the sites they comment on are civil vary widely: between 14 percent and 78 percent of respondents per site rated the comments there as very or somewhat civil.

Some respondents were confused about how to report comments to moderators: only 62 percent said that their news site had a means to report offensive comments, even though a reporting function was available on all of the sites surveyed.

The survey served up more evidence that anonymity plays less of a role in uncivil discourse than some might think: in response to a question about the site’s civility, there was no difference between the results for sites that used Facebook comments, which requires real(istic) names, and systems that allow pseudonyms, such as Disqus, Civil, or Livefyre. Forty-one percent of users on sites that use Facebook comments rated comments as civil; on other sites, the result was 40 percent.

All of this is influencing the feature roadmap for our open-source comment system, Talk, which we’re getting close to releasing in beta form with a handful of testing partners. The first alpha release of Talk happened at the end of December.

We’re adding features and functionality to Talk into the summer, as sites deploy it and we see real commenters start to kick the tires. So much more on that very, very soon. If you’d like to learn more in the meantime, get in touch.

You can read the full survey results here.
Read more at The Engaging News Project website here.
Check out our user research interviews with commenters here.

What do you think about the results of the survey? What questions would you ask commenters? Tell us in our community.

Photo by Moses, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons