By Alexandra Bowen
This guide will help journalists interact with the audience, deal with abuse, and find real value in the comments.
There are at least four good reasons for a journalist to engage in the comments on their articles.
- To improve the quality of the comments
- To create a loyal audience for your work
- To increase people’s trust in your work
- To find new story ideas, sources, connections
1. To improve the quality of the comments
Just by being present, the quality of discourse will improve. A study of comments on more than 70 articles by the Center for Media Engagement at UT-Austin found where a journalist engaged with commenters, uncivil comments dropped by 15% compared to articles where journalists didn’t engage. It’s as if the teacher has suddenly walked into the classroom – people start behaving better.
As Bassey Etim, Community Editor at the New York Times, said last year, “The best thing you can do for a community is to actively show people that somebody at the organization is listening. The more you do on that end, the less intense moderation you need to have.”
You should also report or remove bad comments early, because the longer abusive comments stay up, the more likely they will prevent people leaving productive contributions, as this Pew study from 2017 demonstrates. See below for advice on how to navigate this.
2. To increase people’s trust in your work
At a time when trust in journalism is at an all-time low, building a relationship with your audience is an essential way to restore confidence in your work.
As Craig Silverman wrote in the American Press Institute (API) report ‘Build Credibility Through Transparency’, “One of the most important ways journalists and news organizations earn the trust of the public is by being transparent about who we are and the work we do.” You can do this by answering questions about your work, and by entering into respectful discussions around the methodology of your reporting.
The Trusting News initiative from RJI has modeled other ways to increase trust by engaging in dialog with your community. Here’s a good example from their research of a newsroom responding to questions to increase engagement and trust.
3. To create a loyal audience for your work
For many years, Joel Achenbach has had a series of commenters on his work at the Washington Post who are so loyal that they came up with their own nickname (“the Boodle”). They meet for happy hours, fundraised for a commenter’s chemotherapy, go to events where he is speaking, and suggest ideas for stories. Mostly, though, they meet virtually in the comments section on his articles.
When Mónica Guzmán was a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, she spent a lot of time conversing with commenters on her articles. “I got so much out of my comments,” Guzmán told Nieman Lab last year. “Half the time my next story would come from the comments on the last one. I really took them seriously. It was so valuable to me that I just got to the point where I looked around went, ‘Why isn’t everybody doing this?’”
Aron Pilhofer, former Executive Editor of Digital at The Guardian (and one of our founders) sees engagement including comments as “fundamentally core to any publication that considers conversion to be an important thing. By that I mean paywall, subscriptions, membership, or donations.”
If you want to create loyalty, you have to establish and maintain ongoing relationships with your communities. And the value for your work doesn’t stop there.
4. To find new story ideas, sources, connections
The Tow Center’s Guide to Crowdsourcing reports that “news organizations must demonstrate active engagement and reward the community during the crowdsourcing process, by actively participating in comments or updating contributors on a story’s progress, to encourage more contributions.” (italics ours)
Fergus Bell, News Consultant at Dig Deeper Media and a former AP editor, explained the value of on-site engagement to the World Editors Forum in 2016: “The better you think about how you work with your audience to capture the content that you can add context to, the more likely they are to come to you rather than post it to a [private] platform or send it to a competitor.”
For example, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal created a Facebook group in 2013 around a series of features she was writing on the American healthcare system.
She quickly built a large community of people, many of whom were personally invested in the topic. Early on, she asked a question in the comments of the group about a story she was working on. She received more than 500 responses, and soon realized that this group could be a useful resource for her work.
Over several months, she had created a database of 12,000 stories to support her reporting – so many, in fact, that she had enough material to write a book. The group was later cited in the reporting award she received from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.
Tips from commenters can lead to great stories. An academic study of newsroom practices at The Guardian backs this up, showing how comments on their site provide journalists with new leads and useful perspectives on their work.
How to engage productively in the comments
If you want to engage in the comments, it’s important to approach this work in the right way.
In her API report “The best ways to build audience by listening to and engaging your community”, Mónica Guzmán suggests three ways to show up in the conversation:
Respond: Reply to valid questions, provide information where useful, and show up early. Most comments on a news story are written in the first 24 hours after publication, so you should plan time in your day to engage early and, ideally, more than once.
Encourage: Thank people for productive comments. If you make them feel heard, show you are listening, and feature/share links to the best comments for others to see, both on the site and on social media, then people will feel rewarded for their behavior, and encouraged to do it again. You don’t have to agree with everything people say, but you can show appreciation for the intentions behind their words, and focus on facts that they state, not just their opinions.
Guide: Let people know early that you’ll be reading the comments. You can do this by posting a comment of your own or, if you’re using our Talk platform, state that you’ll be answering questions by using in the Question/Announcement box. You can also ask questions back to the readers in the comments – however, you should only to ask questions if you have the time to return later to follow up, as the community will expect you to read and respond to their answers.
In order to make the community a productive one, you need to model the kinds of behavior you seek in the comments – that is, calm, accurate, compassionate, human. (This academic study shows that if a journalist responds to unpleasant behavior with sarcasm in the comments, it reduces the credibility of their work, and will further damage the health of the community.)
Remember that by writing in the comments, you are representing both yourself and your employer. This means you must also make sure that you’re in the right state of mind when you engage.
You don’t have to respond to everything – you can happily ignore anything that isn’t worth your time, and report/remove any comments that aren’t within your community guidelines. See below for more advice on if you see abuse in the comments.
You also don’t have to agree with everything. Sally Kohn, a liberal commentator who frequently appeared on Fox News, used a technique borrowed from the book Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities that Make Us Influential by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut to engage with ideas which with she disagreed:
Instead of arguing, here’s a tip, which uses the shorthand ABC. The A stands for “affirm.” First, you find a feeling that you can genuinely affirm. In this hypothetical conversation with my aunt Lucy, I might say, “I’m also really worried about the economy right now.” Or, “I completely agree it’s important that everyone has access to a good job.” It’s important that I’m not making it up. It’s not some act or gesture. I mean it. I can really, authentically agree with that part of what Aunt Lucy is saying. So I start with that.
Next is B, for “bridge.” It does not stand for “but.” It also doesn’t stand for “however,” which is the Harvard of “buts.” It’s a bridge, a way of saying “and.” You can actually just say “and” — or “that’s why” or “actually” or “the thing is” or even “the good news is.” Anything but “but.” “But” basically invalidates whatever came before it. Like when I say to my partner, “I’m sorry, but . . .” According to those same couples counselors, that means I’m not at all sorry. Apparently, that’s what my partner thinks it means, too.
Then comes C — “convince.” This is where I put whatever I was inclined to spit out in the first place, about how comprehensive immigration reform actually raises wages and working standards for immigrant and citizen workers, or whatever point I wanted to make.
And don’t respond to people’s comments if you’re tired, hungry, if you’ve had alcohol, if you’re upset, or in an otherwise emotionally or physically vulnerable state. If you’re not sure if you should post something, always step away from your computer, take a break, switch to another task, and then come back and review what you were thinking of writing before posting. If you’re still not sure, ask a trusted colleague for their opinion on what you want to post.
For more on this topic, Julia Haslanger has written a great piece on ways to productively engage in the comments.
What should I do if I see abuse in the comments?
A small number of commenters might be abusive or difficult in the comments. It’s important not to let them dominate the space.
If you see something unpleasant or abusive, there are two good options available to you: report/remove it, or, if it doesn’t raise to the level of breaking the rules on your site, you can simply ignore it.
If you are receiving abuse and harassment yourself, we recommend reading the Online Harassment Field Manual from PEN America. It also contains invaluable advice for employers, as well as actions you can take ahead of time to secure your private information.
If you’ve been given the ability to reject/remove comments, you should ask the Head of Community ahead of time to give you clear guidelines on what kinds of behavior will lead to a comment being rejected vs the commenter being suspended or banned from your site, so that you’re prepared and you know what to do. This should give you the tools you need to take action in a way that is consistent with the rest of your organization’s practices.
Always reach out to your Head of Community if you have any questions or concerns – moderating comments can contain a lot of grey areas that are hard to navigate.
If the comments on your articles aren’t being managed by a dedicated moderator, or you’re expected to moderate the comments yourself as a journalist, try to find a friend in the newsroom who will trade articles with you – then you can remove the worst comments on each others’ pieces before you read them. It’s always less stressful to read abusive comments aimed at someone else, and then to ban or suspend those commenters (if you have access to these features) without exposing someone to personal attacks.
If you haven’t been given moderation abilities, you should flag/report any offending comments, and then move on. In the rare instance of a comment containing a potentially credible threat, escalate that immediately to your Head of Community. (We have a separate guide on how they should handle this situation.)
While we said that you should ignore unpleasant comments that don’t break your rules, we also acknowledge that in many situations, this is easier said than done. If you notice that a comment is getting under your skin, and you are starting to feel stressed or upset about its content, step away from your computer, and seek support if necessary. While abuse only comes from a small minority of users, the trauma some people feel from reading abuse and insults can be a real issue that needs to be addressed early, to avoid serious problems that could surface later.
The comments can be a hugely vibrant, supportive, productive space for journalists to engage with their most dedicated readers. We encourage you to jump in, with thought and care, and to keep at it – it takes time in any space to make connections, and to earn people’s trust, but once you succeed, the rewards will shine through.
Comments Checklist (click here to download a printable PDF)
How to engage in the comments
⬜ Respond to genuine questions
⬜ Encourage good behavior
⬜ Thank people for useful contributions
⬜ Highlight great comments and discussions
⬜ Listen out for potential new stories
⬜ Report/remove offensive comments
⬜ Model the behavior you want to see
⬜ Step away and reach out for help if you feel stressed
What advice would you give to journalists on how to engage in the comments? Have you had any particularly successful interactions? Let us know below!
Alexandra Bowen is the Global Head of Social Media and Community Marketing for OutSystems. She helps companies embrace community as their core business driver and advocate for the needs, and excellence, of their communities. You can follow her on Twitter at @AlexandraABowen
This piece is also published in our Guides to Community Journalism