By Meredith D. Clark, Ph.D.
Part of my mission as a journalist-turned-researcher is to investigate how mainstream media can better reflect and incorporate the experiences and views of people from underrepresented groups – specifically women of color.
As part of the Coral Project’s mission to bridge the gap between journalists and the communities they serve, I surveyed people on the margins – women of color and non-binary people of color – about their news consumption habits, specifically their attitudes toward online commenting.
The survey reflects a convenience sample of self-selecting participants, and was conducted online between December 2017 and July 2018. Survey recruitment was posted on the Coral Project’s blog, and promoted via social media (Facebook and Twitter), where people of color are key participants in the user base.
The data is not representative to the entire population of online news readers and commenters, and frankly, it’s not supposed to be. This research was designed with people of color in mind, placing us at the center of questions about our online commenting behavior. Reflective of 377 completions, the descriptive statistics from this research provides some context about how people from underrepresented groups engage with others around news online. It is complemented by data from in-depth interviews that preceded the survey, and were used to develop of of its measures.
“I believe in the power of conversation online… But the comments section feels really shouty – everyone is saying something to make it stick,” said Samira, one of the interview participants, as she told me about why she’s moved away from commenting on news sites in favor of talking about news with others of social media.
Responses to the survey gave us insights on what we learn when organizations actually listen to Black women — 53 percent of respondents indicated they were Black or African American. They also compelled us to rethink using census categories for describing diverse news consumers: Eight percent of respondents indicated they were of East Asian descent, and two out of every 10 respondents indicated they were “other,” leading with descriptions of biracial or multiracial identities. The category was rounded out by South Asian and Middle Eastern respondents. Irrespective of race, 16 percent of respondents identified as Latinx.
The majority of respondents identify as cisgender women; 13 percent identified as trans (either male or female), agender, or genderqueer.
When it comes to commenting online, the women of color and nonbinary people of color in our sample and complementary in-depth interviews indicated they’re more comfortable doing so under conditions where they feel they have more control, such as on their own social media pages. But when they do comment on online news websites, it’s often in service to the profession and the public, stepping in to submit missing details or context in a story, or to advocate for their communities.
“I try to weigh the cost-benefit analysis,” explained Maia, another participant in the interviews. “What will I get out of posting this? Is anyone going to interact and say, ‘oh, I learned something about this from you?’ Is it smart, engaging discourse? Or is it going to turn into an online version of what happens to me in real life: people dismissing what I have to say for a number of reasons.”
They’ve expressed concern that news platforms won’t step in to help when other commenters on news sites harass them based on race and/or gender, but indicate their peers will, and they return the favor. They’re more likely to ask for intervention from social media platform moderators than news professionals, but have also seen that out on the wild, wild Web, it’s like-minded individuals who most often come to their aid.
But the women of color and non-binary people of color who participated in this research undoubtedly do want to have their say, and they want to know that journalists are listening. 77 percent of respondents who replied to a question about what changes would encourage them to post comments on news stories strongly agreed that “knowing the comments were moderated,” would help. More than a third said that knowing that the journalist or an editor read the comments would encourage their involvement as well.
“I wish we could find ways to build communities better, even on the larger sites,” Samira added.
Like Samira, who described using her phone to check the news upon waking, during her commute, and throughout the day, the survey’s respondents are avid news consumers. Nearly half (47.6 percent) reported checking for news from their phones nearly every waking hour of the day.
Reading the comments to read the room
There are some encouraging points in the data about how women of color and nonbinary people of color engage with their peers in news audiences. While they overwhelmingly avoid posting comments on news websites (42.7 percent and 36.90 percent said they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ do), slightly more than half are reading them. Cumulatively, 51 percent of respondents said they read the comments at least half the time they pick up stories online.
“I call it a masochistic tendency,” said Cynthia. “There is an expectation on the really hot-button issues that someone is going to say something really racist or sexist or homophobic. But I want to see what people are saying on any given issue.”
Rosalind, a former news worker, said she reads the comments to “see the temperature of what the most vocal people.”
For Cynthia, and the 32 percent of respondents who strongly agreed they read comments sections to ‘learn about the opinions of others,’ or the 11 percent said they read them to ‘find out what’s going on in society,’ they are wading into what they already expect will be a hostile space. One gender nonbinary participant, Sydney, said they read the comments because they need to know how others in their community and the larger world feel about their very existence in the world.
“I want to stay informed. I need to be informed, but there’s definitely a limit to how much tragedy I can ingest,” they said, referring to articles about Black victims of police killings.
“I already know the things that people are going to say to criticize the [victim],” they said. “I don’t feel the need to expose myself to that continuously.
“On LGBT and trans rights, I feel like I’m on the more privileged end of the spectrum, and when I I see people saying things, I do feel the need to challenge those opinions in the comments section,” they added.
But for many others, having a personal threshold for deciding when to leave is a matter of self-preservation. 38.9 percent of respondents say they “rarely” read what others have to say about news stories; another 7 percent said they never do.
“When they veer too left or too right, I log off,” said another respondent.
Markeisha, another interview participant added, “if I know it’s a more divisive story, then I stay away from them, because I feel like there’s a lot of ugliness in the comments section.”
It’s my belief that the ‘ugliness’ in the interactions among readers is one of the places where news organizations that might have otherwise captured a more diverse, active readership, may instead have lost them. Perceptions of the actual news coverage aside, respondents to this survey indicated that they are actively seeking, reading, sharing, and talking about news – though they’ve come to not expect much from journalists and the outlets they work for once they scroll past the kicker and contact line.
In questions about their experiences with race- and gender-based harassment in news website commenting sections, nearly all of the participants said they received no help from the organizations where they’d ventured to comment (96 percent and 97 percent, respectively). It may have taught them not to ask for help, either, as nearly 88 percent of participants who’d experienced explicitly gendered harassment didn’t seek the site’s intervention, nor did nearly two-thirds of those who were harassed because of race.
In both scenarios, it was other commenters who came to their aid. 52 percent of individuals who’d experienced gendered harassment and 46 percent of those who’d experienced race-based harassments said it was other people who intervened on their behalf. They also reported engaging hostile personalities directly – 50 percent of those who experienced gender-based harassment took the other person on themselves, as did 52 percent of those who experienced harassment on the basis of race.
Which leaves the question: Where are journalists when it comes to engaging beyond the byline with people from underrepresented groups?
“I would like to see more adults come into the room when comments turn nasty; bring in the journalists who wrote the story… have more dialogue,” Rosalind said.
Journalism’s responsibilities and commitment to engaging audiences must extend beyond simply providing the news if the industry is going to work to repair trust among people on the margins as those margins demographically move closer to becoming the center. Especially now that news media’s perennial crisis of trust with diverse audiences is being more acutely felt in the mainstream.
News professionals still have ample opportunity to enter the dialogue, specifically among people from underrepresented groups, on social media.
“I get all my news from Twitter,” said Twi*, a participant from rural Florida who described themself as gender fluid. “I follow a bunch of journalists who do commentary. All my free time is spent on my Twitter timeline, and it’s mostly journalists that I follow.”
47 percent of participants said they directly access news organization accounts for updates, and 41 percent of those follow at least one specific news personality. About a third (34 percent) said that they get online news from friends and family members.
Gloria, another participant, described using the platform as a “reverse comments section.”
“I’ll follow a tweet to the story because of a comment that another person has made about it,” she said.
A third respondent, Eloise, said she normally ends her day with Twitter, reading through comments on stories she finds interesting.
Opportunities for journalists.
In reviewing the data for this research, I have identified three key opportunities for journalists to improve the online commenting around their stories:
1. Teach the change you want to see.
Several participants praised outlets including the New York Times and the Washington Post for getting some things right with the comments section. One participant said the Times has “modeled responsible commenting behavior” with its tiered approach to reader comments, which highlight a variety of perspectives on different stories. Participants also said they want to hear directly from the journalists themselves: about how the story came to be a story, what sources they selected and why, and what’s next.
2. Be transparent about your rules.
As the mythology around what speech is promoted and what speech gets suppressed and what gets promoted on social-networking platforms, journalism outlets can continue to model exemplary behavior by clearly communicating their policies about how their comment sections are moderated, and then consistently following those policies. In some cases, the speech may become the story – perhaps once a week, walk readers step-by-step through the comment moderation process, discussing rationale to be more transparent about how discourse on a particular story is kept cordial, well-informed, and constructive.
3. Follow the audience.
Investigative reporting has a mantra of “following the dollar,” but given the myriad choices available for news and information online, journalists who want to better engage with women of color and non-binary people of color will follow their lead online.
The respondents in this research indicated having a stronger sense of community and a comfort level with commenting about news by engaging with it via their own social media platforms. Following links and pathways to stories as they are shared online gives journalists and opportunity to see how the narratives they create are being received, and to hear the surrounding conversations in a more inclusive way.
In keeping with The Coral Project’s values of open access, the survey data from this research will be made available on Jan. 7, 2019. For details about the data, please contact the primary investigator.
Meredith D. Clark, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the media studies department at the University of Virginia. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @meredithdclark.