Tips on crowdsourcing, user-generated content, managing comments and other ways of connecting with communities.

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How talk radio listens to its audience, provides lessons for online publishers

Colin McEnroe of WNPR. Photo by Chion Wolf

Audience participation hasn’t been an easy undertaking for online news publishers. Thanks to the unruly culture of online commenting and the “sadistic” actions of Internet trolls, every few weeks another news site announces modifications to its online commenting policy. Among the changes seen lately: Read more

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Friday, Dec. 20, 2013


Poynter experiments with ReadrBoard reader comments

Poynter is experimenting with a new commenting and annotation tool, ReadrBoard, which allows users to chart their reactions by paragraph and leave comments inside a story.

You can tell which Poynter stories we’re testing with ReadrBoard by finding the Reactions button; under the headline of some stories, there is a button with an icon that looks like bubbles with the word “Reactions” and a caret (the arrow pointing downwards):

When you hover your mouse over the button, ReadrBoard will show you how other readers have responded to the article. Click on the reactions to read comments other readers have left.

To leave your own responses, click on “What do you think?” and a series of rectangles will appear. You can click on the rectangles which best encapsulates your reaction to the story: Hilarious. Love it. Uh, no. Amazing. These are the options are now available in the story on email encryption by Jeremy Barr.

If the categories don’t fit your response, create a new one by clicking “Add your own” and type in your response.

To comment on a particular paragraph, hover your mouse at the end of the paragraph to see the ReadrBoard icon appear with other reactions. Click on “What do you think?” to leave a comment.

If others have comments, you can find them in the grayed out icon with a number denoting the number of comments in that paragraph:

We are trying this new system to determine whether we can increase meaningful discussions with our readers and gauge your reactions to our stories.

Publications such as ProPublica, Fast Company, Duke Chronicle and Racialicious, have already partnered with ReadrBoard to try the tool, according to Porter Bayne, co-founder of ReadrBoard.

Leave a comment through ReadrBoard or discuss below to tell us if you like this commenting and annotation tool. Read more


Wednesday, Dec. 04, 2013

Newrooms can co-exist with online comments with moderation and a strategy. (Depositphotos)

Can reporters help repair online comment sections?

Several years ago during a seminar at Poynter, we were talking about engaging our audiences.

“We ask our readers and viewers to comment on our stories,” one participant said, “but unless we respond to them, how will they know we’re listening?

“Their assumption,” he said, “is that we’re not.”

In the years since, I’ve heard from a lot of journalists who confirm that, indeed, they’re not listening. They don’t read users’ comments for a variety of reasons: no time, no interest, no stomach for the cesspools they often find there.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard other journalists and newsroom leaders say that journalism’s future requires a different, more interactive relationship with the audience, one in which people outside the newsroom share their expertise and engage in productive debate. That’s how democracies thrive cheap nike air max.

Which brings us back to those cursed Web comments sections. What can be done to make more of them places for productive debate?

Three ideas I hear most often are these:

  • Comments need to be moderated.
  • Comments sections need to be more than fenced-off areas for the public to talk among themselves. They need to be part of a newsroom’s coverage strategy.
  • Reporters and editors need to participate in the conversation.

For starters, moderation. Conversations on websites that moderate comments tend to be more substantial and less venomous. So why aren’t more comments sections moderated?

Money, of course. Many newsrooms have decided they don’t have the resources to invest in good comments sections. A few are “deputizing” members of the public to police comments, and the verdict is still out. The others? Well, as my mother would say, you get what you pay for.

Does your newsroom moderate comments?

Often, the same newsrooms that don’t moderate also lack a strategy for comments — beyond the idea that news organizations have an obligation to make space available for a public forum. Like abandoned properties, comments sections without strategies quickly become neglected and fall into disrepair. The best comments sections reflect a plan for hearing the public, benefiting from its expertise and promoting meaningful discussions of issues.

Does your newsroom have a serious strategy for comments?

A third contributor to better comments sections — especially when accompanied by moderation — is the involvement of reporters and editors in the conversations. But talk about a hard sell.

Yes, newsroom staffs are handling more responsibilities than ever. And this does amount to new work. But the truth is, most journalists have never been anxious to mix it up with the public. Newspaper editors and reporters for years responded to unhappy readers with one, or both, of these scripted responses: “We stand behind our story,” and “Why don’t you write a letter to the editor?”

And remember the reaction to publishing reporters’ email addresses at the end of stories? As that debate unfolded, I remember becoming increasingly uncomfortable that we who demanded unlimited access to those we were covering, wanted desperately to limit anyone’s access to us.

Today, we publish reporters’ email addresses, are (generally) more willing to look into complaints and publish far more contributions from our readers and viewers, at least their comments. And slowly, a growing number of newsrooms are requiring or strongly encouraging reporters and editors to wade into those comments and talk with the users who post them.

One such newsroom is the Financial Times. Sarah Laitner, the London-based newsroom’s communities editor, told me during a recent visit to Poynter about the FT’s efforts to involve reporters in the comments sections, and the results they’ve seen. The FT moderates comments. They are part of a strategy, as is the desire for the journalists to participate in them. Sarah is quick to point out that the effort is evolving, but she says the FT already has seen benefits.

Here is a Q&A I conducted with Sarah and her colleague, social media journalist Maija Palmer:

Ward: The FT has embarked on a serious effort to have its reporters engage readers in the comments section on articles on your website. Why? What role does that play in the FT’s strategy?

Laitner: Readers’ comments on our site inform us, reward us and often surprise us. The comment box is a space in which readers can agree, disagree, foster connections with each other and challenge us. When our journalists join in, they show that we listen and have our readers in mind. This is particularly important for a subscription site such as

When I comment online, I’m usually thrilled if a journalist or fellow poster answers me, and I hope my colleagues are able to provoke the same reaction in their readers.

Palmer: I think the way that journalism is conducted is changing. In many cases, there is a lot we can learn from our readers who can be real experts in particular subjects. We should be moving more to taking suggestions from readers on what we are covering. Some journalists have found that one astute comment under their story can provide the starting point for another article.

Ward: Specifically, what have you asked FT’s reporters to do with online comments? Is it a mandate or a suggestion?

Laitner: We have asked our colleagues to read the comments on their stories and we strongly encourage them to reply. We know everyone is busy, but we do ask them to take a few minutes to review comments on their stories from the past 24 hours. We don’t expect them to respond to everyone and it doesn’t have to be at length, but we do want to show that we are listening.

A great example of reader interaction is on FT Alphaville, our finance and markets blog, where our journalists chat to their loyal band of readers pretty much all the time, and know them well. Our UK personal finance team talks to readers through its live Q&A series. Here’s a recent example, featuring the British pensions minister:

Palmer: Our columnists regularly answer the comments under their articles and often can end up in debate with readers. It can be enjoyable and it has raised the level of the comments a great deal.

Laitner: Our news editors also have become more involved in comment threads, which helps to spread the load.

Ward: How are you communicating the effort about engaging with readers’ comments on and the strategy behind it?

Laitner: The message has come from the top, from the editor. Training sessions with me and Maija, emails, blog posts and water cooler moments also help to get the message across. We explain the value of reader interaction and point out the benefits of getting to know readers who may be experts in their fields. We also try to share examples of when conversations with readers can be really helpful for the journalist. Here’s one such case:

Web traffic is another incentive. Our homepage has a box featuring “best comments” from our readers. We invite our journalists to make suggestions for the homepage box. If a comment posted on their story appears in the box, their article usually has a surge in traffic.

Also, Maija and I try to show our journalists how effective timely and judicious use of Twitter can get the ball rolling in traffic and commenting.

Ward: What was the reporters’ reaction to the new work? How did management respond to the response?

Laitner: As with any new initiative, some people take to it readily and others need more persuasion. We point out that reading comments can improve colleagues’ knowledge of their beats and potentially lead them to make new sources.

At the same time, I think it helps if you recognize your colleagues’ concerns. We want to protect our journalists from the abuse and unpleasantness that comes with some online comments, especially on topics that stir strong emotions or opinions. Even the thickest-skinned of colleagues can be unsettled by hostile comments. We try to help by intervening in comment threads and acting against fiery users who verbally abuse our journalists. We also remind colleagues that commenters tend to write criticism more than they do praise, but if you foster a community then readers will stand up for you and intervene against hostile types.

We have found that if our journalists and moderators intervene early in uncivil threads then the decorum tends to improve. In some cases, we simply need to accept that a civil debate isn’t possible and close the thread instead.

Ward: Can you point to any results this effort has produced? Have your readers noticed?

Laitner: Yes. We have received story ideas, picked up readers’ dislikes and raised the tone of some debates on our site. And readers have noticed our efforts. One (Ex NHS Surgeon) wrote recently: “The beauty of FT is not so much the articles themselves, but the treasure trove in the comments. Not that I can pretend to understand more than a fraction of the total.” And another (@khakieconomist) wrote: “I really like that the @FT puts top reader comments on the front page. Creates a real incentive to make worthwhile comments. Why not copied?”

We are curious about our commenters on, many of whom post using pseudonyms. My colleague, Lisa Pollack, head of new projects, had the great idea of a survey to ask them what they thought about our commenting functions. She dipped into comment threads and posted a link to our questions. Several readers told us to “keep up the good work,” which was heartening! Respondents expressed appreciation for our journalists who regularly wade into comments to reply to readers and further the discussion. FT Alphaville was mentioned as an example of the right amount of interaction.

Ward: What have you learned from this effort? Would you do anything differently next time? Any advice for other newsrooms?

Laitner: Explain the advantages of going into comment threads; someone who is an expert in their field could be posting on there anonymously and sharing valuable insights.

Remind journalists that it’s a compliment that readers are taking the time to post their views.

Remember that you are dealing with the emotions of your colleagues and your readers. Always try to put yourself in their shoes. Read more

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Wednesday, Nov. 06, 2013

Screen shot 2013-11-01 at 9.49.00 AM

Despite complaints, comments broadly allowed on many news sites

With the recent focus on online reader comments — see The New Yorker on “The Psychology of Online Comments” and The New York Times Magazine on “Four Ways to Improve the Culture of Commenting” — it’s a good time to survey the field and see how news organizations allow comments. (We’ll save the subject of moderation for another day.)

Starting with Alexa’s list of the top 500 sites in the U.S., I took the first 50 that could loosely be defined as news sites, removing sites such as Drudge Report and AOL that primarily linked out to other news sources. I also removed sites with strategies that would be redundant to include (such as Businessweek because Bloomberg was already on the list, and Lifehacker because it’s part of the Gawker network).

Finally, I focused only on the site’s main domain and not on affiliated sites such as blogs, which often have different commenting systems and standards.

Of the 50 sites I identified, none lacked a commenting system. In fact, just five of the sites — The New York Times, Fox News, BBC, The Guardian and CBS News — seemed to limit the number of stories available for comment in a significant way, with stories allowing comments particularly hard to find on the BBC’s site. The vast majority of sites I looked at seemed to allow comments everywhere. None of these major players in online news has done away with comments completely, as Popular Science did in September.

Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of the sites surveyed permit comments on stories via social-network plugins such as Disqus, Livefyre, Gigya and others:

Interestingly, of the six sites that required registration and didn’t permit commenting via social media, three were newspaper websites, even though newspaper websites made up less than one-quarter of all the sites surveyed. That could indicate newspaper sites have been slower to catch up with the possibilities of social-media commenting.

According to Pew, 64 percent of American adults have a Facebook account, and it’s appealing to be able to post a reader comment without having to sign up for yet another user name and password to keep track of. Eighty-six percent of the 50 websites visited allow readers to comment on stories via Facebook, and two of the top 10 — ESPN and USA Today — require it.

Given that research shows Facebook comments are more civil than anonymous comments, it’s no surprise news organizations are pushing readers in that direction and risking less engagement by giving readers a reason to think before they post, knowing their real identities (in most cases) will be linked to the comments they leave cheap jordans.

Only two sites — Gawker and People — permitted completely anonymous posting without even email verification. (Many sites, of course, permit anonymous screen names, but only after completing a registration process.)

See the full list of sites surveyed below:

Read more


Monday, Feb. 18, 2013


5 ways to engage more with your audience — in person and online

Talk about engagement with a journalist these days, and the conversation turns quickly to social media. Who can deny the influence of social media, which now serves as a news source for one-third of adults under 30?

If you really want to connect with people, though, social media is only part of the equation. Digital can be a proxy for interaction, but it works better when paired with the real thing.

At the Chicago Tribune, our newsroom employs a chain of engagement in a program we call Trib Nation. It includes actions that are familiar to the most fiercely orthodox readers and journalists: running corrections. It includes live programs created by journalists in auditoriums around Chicago and one-on-one conversations that follow them. It includes social Tweetups with digital natives and invitations to join us for conversations at our headquarters in Tribune Tower.

When I took part last fall in Poynter’s Social Media Webinar Series to talk about “Finding Your Social Media Voice,” a number of participants seized on the idea that “social media” could involve more than digital technology. Done well, it also involves a handshake and sincere conversation.

There’s a common thread: Know who you’re talking to, so you can know what they need. At the Tribune we recognize that journalism is no longer purely mass media; it’s about this series of personal connections that happen to add up into the tens of thousands.

“In the end, our success will depend on establishing a relationship with the people who come to the Tribune each day in all of its forms,” said Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern in a Trib Nation article.

In June 2011, the Tribune reacted to readers’ requests for deeper coverage by adding 44 news pages a week to the paper, as well as Web innovations, news applications, and mobile and tablet editions. In 2012, Trib Nation staged more than 100 news events, including public policy discussions, author talks and seminars. We’ll do the same in 2013.

The tools are many. The goal is simple, Kern said in editor’s messages to Tribune readers: “Strengthening the bond between our readers and the Chicago Tribune.” How does the Tribune do that? Here’s part of our playbook:

Take corrections and clarifications seriously

The most basic and meaningful social interaction newsrooms have with their readers has to do with being accurate, verifiable and fair. When we fail to live up to that compact, our readers — and our colleagues — expect us to point out the error quickly and clear it up. That’s about trust. And trust is crucial to strong relationships.

We use Page 2 of the Chicago Tribune to correct errors made in print, and make sure to reference errors on digital stories after they’ve been corrected online and in our archives.

Explain the newsgathering process

Readers want to know how journalism works and why we make certain decisions. On our Trib Nation blog and in a prominent space on Page 2 (right alongside the corrections, actually), Tribune journalists talk about how they got surprising stories and controversial photographs, and why they went after them in the way they did.

Editors discuss tough calls. That transparency goes a long way toward dismantling the wall between a newsroom and a skeptical community, as we often hear from readers at our own events and in other circumstances when we interact with the community.

Hold community-based events

When many of us began our careers, institutions gave people credibility. Take a look around lately, and it’s easy to see that institutions, including news organizations, are precisely what people don’t trust.

In 2010, the Tribune launched a full range of events designed to put readers in regular contact with Tribune journalists, newsmakers and the interview process. During most of our programs, which we charge admission for, we offer attendees a chance to mingle and continue the conversation afterward, often with snacks or a glass a wine.

When people talk with a reporter or editor from the Tribune, or with a newsmaker, they walk away with a more realistic impression of journalism than they arrived with. We also schedule regular meetups in the community, just to talk with readers when we aren’t rushing to a deadline. In fact, that’s one way we learned people would be interested in programmed events.

Engage in a conversation with your audience

Pick a topic, any topic, and invite a dozen people with surprising vantage points to lunch with a dozen journalists. That describes our regular Community Conversation lunches with local connectors and thought leaders.

In 2012, the monthly gatherings have covered the status of women, volunteering, personal debt, pets and voting. We announce upcoming luncheons on Page 2 and via social media. We don’t charge anything, and we never guarantee coverage. But try listening to a bunch of smart people sharing fresh ideas and critical observations without pulling out your notepad. It’s not that easy.

Embrace social media

It’s critical to engage with your audience on social networking sites. Research and common sense says this audience includes younger news consumers who have come of age in an era in when thoughtful, engaged individuals are sometimes more trusted than institutions.

Social media offers opportunities to correct assumptions, tune into trending topics and talk with readers who are deeply interested in the subjects specialist reporters cover. Plus, it’s highly quantifiable — which means it’s easy to see what’s hitting the mark and what isn’t in time to adjust your aim.

“Trib Nation underscores our role as convener of the important conversations. And it changes the way people view the Tribune and talk about the Tribune,’’ Joycelyn Winnecke, the Tribune’s vice president and associate editor who oversees reader engagement programs, said via email. “We see this as an extension of our journalism and, in the case of events, a new platform for publishing our journalism. Readers make a connection that goes far beyond the written page, the website or the mobile app.”

Bonus: Learning curve

We found that we got better at doing engagement with practice. As I was writing this, Poynter’s Mallary Tenore asked me when we failed. The answer is: It was always about experimenting, not failure or success.

When some things worked better than others, we followed those paths. We could always learn quickly from it — finding a better venue for certain types of events, for example, or a better way to communicate with readers online, or getting a feel for managing a discussion with several participants. We improve all the time, but it doesn’t feel like failure. It’s hard to really blow it when you’re coming into the conversation honestly and curiously.

I would say a key thing we learned was that the best engagement didn’t need to happen on our turf. A few years ago, I learned a great deal from some of the diverse thinkers that Joy Mayer and Reuben Stern assembled for a conference on “The Engagement Metric” at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute.

It’s worth reading Stern and Mayer’s report, and interesting to see the people of varied backgrounds they assembled to think differently about journalism. One of the panelists was cultural anthropologist Matt Bernius, who mentioned studies in which more trust flowed from interactions in a place that was comfortable to the distrustful party.

In other words: Get out of your comfort zone and into more church basements, community centers, homes and main streets to have casual conversations. I have to say, it’s a pretty rewarding path to follow.

James Janega is the Trib Nation manager at the Chicago Tribune. Read more


Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013


Early comments on stories affect what later readers believe, and what they say

A recent scientific experiment demonstrated the importance of intervening in comment sections to cultivate constructive discussion, particularly just after publication.

Scientific American Blog Editor Bora Zivkovic writes about the results, which showed that the tone of pre-existing comments on a story affected subsequent readers.

An article about nanotechnology, a topic most people know very little about and usually have no a priori biases for or against, was presented to the test subjects. Half the people saw the article with (invented) polite, civil and constructive comments. The other half was given the same article but with uncivil comments – essentially a flame-war in the fake commenting thread. The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.

The Guardian saw a similar lesson when it tried two commenting systems simultaneously — Facebook comments within its Facebook app, and traditional comments on Web pages. Former user experience chief Martin Belam writes:

I had rather hoped that by opening two commenting threads underneath each article — one on Facebook, and one on the Guardian site — we’d be able to prove once and for all whether one or [the] other led to better interaction. In the end, it appeared that actually the tone set early on in a comment thread looked like it influenced comments much more than anything intrinsic about the format or identity system used.

Journalists who have written off comment sections as forsaken wastelands should still be concerned with this problem — because rancid comments also spoil the perception and potential impact of your content.

So how do you get the kinds of comments necessary to seed good discussions and avoid meltdowns cheap jordans from china?

That seems more difficult than ever, unfortunately.

Technology is not enough

The act of publishing is now so democratized and social media so pervasive that most everyone whose musings are worth hearing probably has found their own personal avenues of expression.

Smart people with something constructive to say about your article may be posting their thoughts to their Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr. Your comments section could be left as a second-class wasteland suitable only for logical fallacies and trolling.

Major publishers like Politico and TechCrunch recently announced they were dropping Facebook-powered comments and switching to other platforms (Disqus and Livefyre). That renewed debates about which platform produces better discussions.

But most people with experience in the field seem to believe, as Belam says, that “software design and features do influence community behaviours, but not as much as decent community management and personal engagement from journalists does.”

Dan Gillmor recently shared some thoughts about how that might work:

If I could design a comment system, it would put all anonymous comments at the thread’s end, and give the site owner an easy way to move good comments higher. I’d also give users a way to make anonymous comments invisible. Most sites, at this point, require a working email address and let users post under pseudonyms. This, too, can be abused by a troll, but it injects an element of accountability.

In the end, accountability is up to the site owner. Whether you are a lone blogger or a big news organization, comment threads are a platform you make available to others. The thread is your living room, where you’re hosting a conversation. You invite people into your home, and you make the rules on how they should behave.

Maybe “better comments” is the wrong goal. Maybe we need something “better than comments.”

Fresh approaches

The Huffington Post — which received well over 70 million comments last year — is launching a new comment-highlighting tool called “Conversations.”

It plucks discrete discussion threads out of the sea of comments and elevates them to their own Web pages. PaidContent’s Jeff John Roberts has the details:

The new set-up should make it easier to jump in on a given debate about the story that’s of interest. In the Benghazi story, for example, groups of people can find each other to discuss specific facets of the story — whether the US should be in Libya; whether the incident was Hillary’s fault; whether Hillary is actually a Muslim agent sent from Mars to destroy America and so on.

The fact that the “Conversations” will now have their own URL also makes it easier for people to share them and invite others into the discussion.

Gawker has been pushing its comments in a new direction too, with a focus on creating distinct, focused conversations and giving the person who started each conversation control over the responses.

Others are arguing that new systems of “social annotation” will replace commenting forms. One startup to watch is — an open-source platform for annotating content across the Web. It will act as an overlay that participating users see on top of content as they browse, so individual website owners will have no control over it. But the notion is intriguing.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon looks at another annotations system used by the Rap Genius website to crowdsource understanding of rap music lyrics. The site’s users annotate each line of song lyrics with explanations.

Salmon is enthusiastic about the idea’s potential to spread:

If this takes off, it could be a significant evolution in the way that we talk about Web content. Right now, for instance, if I want to link to something somebody said on a Web page, I’ll normally just end up linking from Twitter to an undifferentiated page, rather than to the specific thing being said. And more generally, the conversation around things like blog posts tends to happen mostly on Twitter and Facebook, where it’s easy to miss and almost impossible to archive.

It would be amazing if annotation could change all that, helping to make comments more on-point and also providing a centralized archive of the conversation around any given story. … Internet comments are more of a bug than a feature these days, and I do think that annotation is a very promising way of potentially addressing the problems they have.

Related: Ben Smith: “It’s crazy that people still read, much less write about, blog comments” | Monday was Community Manager Appreciation Day Read more


Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012

How to keep social media reaction in perspective when covering the elections

Flip the channel or the page, and you’ll find it: coverage of the social media reaction to news events — and political events like conventions and debates.

Much of it, however, talks about that reaction as though it represents the entire population. That, or it offers numbers without context (tweets per minute! Number of times the debate is mentioned!), as Stephen Colbert so ably skewered. For many news organizations, Twitter in particular has become a stand-in for public reaction.

The problem with that? Simple — social media users may be a lot like you and me, but they are not like everyone. Only 85 percent of people in the U.S. use the Internet. (Don’t get me started on the fact that we don’t talk about the 15 percent of Americans who don’t have access to the Internet. Fifteen percent!). Of those who do use the Internet, about half are on Facebook and 16 percent are on Twitter. And a smaller number of those folks ever post about politics.

Who are social media users? Thanks to findings from organizations like the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, we’re learning a good bit about them. Lee Rainie, director of the project, said by phone that “they skew in several directions, including towards young adults, towards upscale adults, and towards liberals.” The newest study points out that those most likely to use social media to post about politics tend to be those further from the center — liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, and among those, it’s not an even split.

A chart from the study Pew released last week makes this clearer. While 69 percent of all Internet users are on some kind of social networking service, 63 percent are conservative, 70 percent are moderate and 79 percent are liberals. Looking at age, 92 percent of 18-29 year olds use some kind of social networking site, while 57 percent of 50-64 years olds do.

How does this matter to our coverage? Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, points out that, “If Twitter were a leading indicator, Ron Paul would be the Republican nominee. Ron Paul got far and away the most favorable attention on Twitter during the caucus/primary season.”

These are “interesting somebodys but not everybody,” Rainie says. They are “a subset of a subset.”

A Project for Excellence in Journalism study comparing social media sentiment to mainstream media sentiment during the conventions found that the social media was consistently more negative:

The conversation on Twitter, blogs and Facebook about Mitt Romney and Barack Obama during this key period changed little with events – even during the two candidates’ own nominating conventions. The conversation in all of these platforms was also consistently negative, according to the study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

In the mainstream media, by contrast, both Romney and Obama received a version of the traditional convention bounce, with coverage about them becoming more positive during the week of their party’s nationally televised gathering.

The study authors wonder whether social media are making what we hear about politics more negative, and make it harder for those involved in campaigns to “alter the media narrative.”

One problem in finding the answer to this is that measurement tools for social media are still very new. Rainie points out that “we can’t tell if A caused B, if one thing led to another. We can see more conversations than we used to, but it doesn’t stand in for everyone and everything.”

I’m not saying don’t talk about social media; it’s likely that social media users are influencing the discussion (it seems clear they’re influencing campaign finances). But I think we need to be more conscious about how we frame the discussion. With that in mind, I’d like to make a few suggestions on how to cover social media reaction accurately.

Add context

Understanding who social media users are, and telling your audience about them is useful. Adding deeper context is even better. For instance, we know that liberals are more likely to tweet political statements than conservatives are, so comparing the volume of tweets between the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention probably isn’t useful.

But comparing the volume of tweets in the presidential debate to the vice presidential debate can show the difference in interest between the two — as long as you don’t generalize the Twitter reaction to the entire population.

Some projects, like the CNN-Facebook Election Insights or the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign 2012 in the Media, examine how often a particular candidate is mentioned. Given that Facebook, by sheer numbers of people, is more likely to be representative of the population as a whole, you might be tempted to generalize. Resist the temptation. Rainie points out that while Facebook users are more like the general population, they still skew young, female, and upscale.

CNN doesn’t make the leap from Facebook to everyone, and your coverage shouldn’t either. However, just talking about the numbers probably isn’t useful unless you can talk about changes to a very narrow group of Facebook users over time.

Understand sentiment analysis

Sentiment analysis — the measurement of whether the tone of a post is positive or negative about a topic — is a fairly new, and tricky, process. Some sentiment analysis is aided by humans, while some is done strictly by computers looking for positive or negative words and their proximity to a keyword. But a statement like “I want to love Obama, but I don’t” illustrates how complex this can be. Clearly, it’s not a positive statement, but a computer seeing the word “love” next to “Obama” might rank it as one.

So be cautious when quoting reports of positive or negative statements in social media. Even when sentiment analysis is correct, researchers aren’t sure what impact, if any, it has on wider public opinion.

Rainie suspects that people posting about politics on Facebook may be influencing others, but our current analysis tools don’t let us know for sure. “It’s discourse,” he said. “Discourse sometimes drives opinion, but sometimes makes it muddier.” Rosenstiel thinks Twitter may have influence as well. He said that while only 10 percent of Americans get political news from Twitter, he bets that the percentage is much higher for political reporters:The paradox is that Twitter is a way to influence the thinking of old media.”

Vary your reaction sources

Website polls, person on the street interviews and social media reaction are not representative of the population at large. Still, it’s important to listen to what different groups of people are saying. So make social media coverage just one piece of the public reaction you cover. Pull in a group of undecided voters for a focus group. Interview people on the street in the suburbs. Do a Web survey. And make it clear that none of these are everybody, but they’re all interesting somebodys.

Highlight specific users

Instead of generalizing, stay narrow. One of the great things about social media is being able to hear from people you normally wouldn’t be able to contact for an interview on short notice. If you can find and use quotes from specific people on Facebook and Twitter, it can enrich your coverage. Just be sure that they’re verified accounts, and not spoofs.

Facebook’s public search lets you find public reaction and follow up. When you come across someone with an interesting perspective, you can reach out to individuals for an interview.

Interact with your audience

There’s no better time than an election season to use social media to engage with your audience and get them engaged in the political process. Ask for their opinion, use Facebook polls, or crowdsource interview questions.

Go ahead. Enjoy, and cover, the voices of social media. Just remember, it’s not everyone’s voice. Read more


Thursday, May 31, 2007

Assessing Legal Risks and Guidelines for User Comments

By Al Tompkins
Broadcast/Online Group Leader

As newsrooms across the country grapple with online user comments, the discussion often turns to legal implications. I wanted to demystify the matter and sort through the rumor and rhetoric. So I went after some straight answers from people who actually know.

I consulted two media attorneys in a market I covered for years, Nashville, to learn more about what legal concerns
journalism organizations should have when they allow members of the public to
freely post comments on public Web sites. I interviewed (by e-mail) Alan E. Korpady,
of King & Ballow, and Robb S. Harvey, of
Waller, Lansden Dortch & Davis.

are the legal issues that newsrooms should consider when opening their Web
sites to public comment?

Harvey: Newsrooms
not only as a matter of common sense but also for reasons
of self-preservation must consider whether their Web sites are likely to
attract comments that could pose liability risks. In recent
years, numerous claims have been asserted regarding Web site postings, including defamation, invasion of privacy, misappropriation of likeness
and right of publicity, infliction of emotional distress and negligence.
Even if lawsuits by those being commented upon, posters or even other
readers may ultimately be found wanting or even frivolous, those
claims impose time demands, expense and substantial
distraction. Newsrooms and their counsel must carefully consider immunity
and safe harbor protections under statutes such as the federal Communications
Decency Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, as well as other recently
enacted state statutes and common law.

Korpady lists
the main legal concerns:

  • Potential
    liability for direct, contributory or vicarious copyright infringement
  • Potential
    liability for trademark infringement
  • Potential
    liability for defamation by bloggers
  • Application
    of licensing laws to bloggers giving or disseminating what might be
    characterized as “professional” (e.g., legal or medical) advice
  • Vicarious
    liability for the wrongful acts of a blogger as a “general partnership,” especially if the blogger accepts advertising

Is there any truth to the commonly held belief among news
executives that if they do not edit comments they are more protected from
defamation and/or libel claims than if they edit feedback?

There is some truth to this belief, but like most things, it cannot
be assumed to be an absolute rule. Substantial case law
has developed over the past several years recognizing “Section 230
immunity” under the federal Communications Decency Act.
This immunity is broad, and has been applied to entities such as
Internet service providers, Web site operators, computer equipment lessors,
municipalities and forum board operators.

Korpady: Generally, it is likely that is true.
The case law has not developed to the point where we can provide such advice
with anything approaching real comfort. Section 230(c) of the federal
Communications [Decency Act] provides broad protection to the “provider of an interactive
computer service” for statements or information provided by “another
information content provider.” In the limited research I did to support
this general response, however, I found no case that expressly extends that
protection to newspapers. If, however, a newspaper is put on notice of
defamatory speech, it is also protected by Section 230(c) if it restricts
access to such speech. Some courts have held that even a distributor of
information (no editing or selection of content), must act “reasonably” when put
on notice of defamatory speech.

If newsrooms do allow public comment, what would you
recommend as rules of engagement for the public to follow?

Although the following is not provided as legal advice — the reader should
consult counsel of his/her choosing in this area — among the considerations
to be taken into account [is] the need for the newsroom
to impose robust “terms of service” on all posters.
Posters should be informed that they are responsible for their own
postings. The newsroom should consider advising readers that the
newsroom does not control or monitor what third parties post, and that
readers occasionally may find comments on the site to be offensive or
possibly inaccurate. Readers should be informed that responsibility
for the posting lies with the poster himself/herself and not with the newsroom
or its affiliated sites.

Korpady: Adopt
and include in the access agreement with bloggers a “notice and take down”
policy reserving the right to refuse to post or to restrict access to
defamatory or infringing speech.

and include in the access agreement with bloggers an agreement not to post
defamatory, infringing or other harmful content.

And be aware that the blogging community is very jealous of its
unfettered right to speak and has on a number of recent occasion “mobbed” an Internet service provider that took down clearly infringing content (e.g.,
You may be caught, without a remedy, between a defamed person and the defaming
blogger or between the owner of a copyrighted work and the infringing blogger
that posted it. Read more


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Feedback for Thought: Did We Do the Right Thing?

By Scott Libin
Poynter Online Managing Editor

Where I work, the legendary status
of Eugene Patterson is perhaps second only to that of Nelson Poynter
himself. Patterson won a Pulitzer Prize
for his Atlanta Constitution columns
on civil rights during the 1960s. He
became editor of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
in 1972 and, upon Poynter’s death in 1978, became chairman of the board of the
Modern Media Institute, now known as The Poynter Institute.

A more-revered figure around here
would be hard to name. So, when someone
said on this site last week
that Patterson should have been shot for those
civil rights columns,
well, those would be fightin’ words — if we at the Institute weren’t such a
collegial group.

The comment came from Bill White,
commander of the American National Socialist Workers’ Party, whose magazine
cover for April features a swastika and the huge headline reading “Happy
Birthday Hitler.” White was responding
to a piece by Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark titled “They Shot His Dog: Historical
Lessons on Incivility,”

which drew a parallel between the racist hate letters that appeared on op-ed
pages in the South during the ’60s and some of the online user comments causing
concern among journalists across the country today.

Why would we allow on our site the
suggestion by a white supremacist that Gene Patterson deserved to die?

In one sense, it seems to violate
our own guidelines on user comments,
which say, “We will remove messages that contain … personal attacks, insults or

On the other hand, in context, the
comment could constitute an attempt at humor: “Its [sic] a shame they shot his dog — they should have shot him
instead. I can’t see what the dog had to do with it,” White wrote.

He went on to offer his
perspective on the broader issue that was at the very heart of Clark’s
column and the coverage that accompanied it — the conflict between the values
of civil discourse and of freely expressed opinion on significant issues:

“You can censor anything you like
but you guys don’t own or control the media any more — and what you do or
don’t do in your increasingly irrelevant publications really just doesn’t
matter,” White wrote.

That sentiment is probably shared
by many people who would like to think they have nothing in common with the
politics of people like White. The same
could be said for his closing comment:

“So continue the self-absorbed
debate from the position of your own ‘importance’ while that very importance –
and you [sic] ability to act as gate keeper of public opinion — fades away.”

White’s comments also offer
insight into the tactics of the group he represents — insight that may be
troubling, but that has clear relevance to those who report on issues that are
important, emotional and divisive:

“Now, we don’t just protest at the
newspaper — we go to the writer’s homes and protest there,” White says.

It didn’t make my day to encounter
such a subtly menacing message aimed at journalists on our site. But the mission of Poynter Online is not to
protect journalists from unpleasant truths or unpopular political
positions. It is to inform and help
journalists do their jobs.

Sometimes that means encountering
comments that offend.

What do you think? Read more


Baggy Pants, Drunken Driving and Day Care: Cincy’s Challenges with User Comments

By Bob Steele
The Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values

I recently spent a couple of days trying to help people in The (Cincinnati) Enquirer newsroom come to terms with ethical challenges that affect journalists almost everywhere in this cyber era.

How do you honor the values of accuracy and fairness when immediacy and speed are new priorities? How do you protect the credibility of the journalism when you deploy more reporters to breaking news? How do you guard the integrity of the newspaper when online journalism looks so different? Are the values different for how stories are judged? Are the sensibilities different for how readers react to the content online compared to the paper?

Nowhere are those questions of values and sensibilities trickier than in the area of online comments by readers. Our spirited discussion at The Enquirer echoed themes from a recent piece by Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell.

(I talked to Howell about her column and the reaction it provoked for a recent Poynter podcast.)

Tom Grubisich explored similar issues, also in the Post.

In our conversations at The Enquirer, some staffers championed the value of freewheeling online comments from the public. Others expressed concern about the consequences of comments that run from roughshod to racist.

After the workshops, I asked two of the Cincy editors to weigh in on these matters in an e-mail Q&A with me. They offered insight on some of the high and low points so far in their experience with inviting readers to comment — about content on both the newspaper’s main site and on a newer, more narrowly focused site.

Tom Callinan has responsibility for The Enquirer newspaper and online news coverage at

What is your sense of the pros and cons of encouraging the public to post comments to online forums and/or to story comments/chats?

Inviting readers to partner in the news has upsides and downsides. Here’s an example of crowd-sourcing that serves the public interest:

Recently, we broke a story online about persistent power problems in a suburban township. The reporter asked readers to help report the story with power issues and got dozens of useful comments. The story received more than 10,000 page views — and the utility company heard from the public about paying attention to the problem.

Among the 40,000 township residents affected by the frequent outages was a 49-year-old woman whose life depends on using a home kidney dialysis machine 10 hours a day. She received an apology from the president of the energy company, and a local firm that specializes in protecting local companies from unreliable power contacted her and donated a $6,000 uninterruptible power system in her home.

That clearly served the public interest. But less desirable are occasions when flamers post racist, profane or insensitive comments.

What are the competing values at stake when we create these forums?

We need to balance the public interest with our need to build audience online. While discussions about controversies and celebrities may get more traffic, we have a responsibility to invite people in to talk about important issues that may not be as sexy.

That said, readers will participate in constructive dialogue about civic issues if we put a bit of thinking into how we present issues to them. A good example was a recent online discussion about downtown’s “missing ingredients.” More than 180 readers contributed to a “wish list” and the conversation attracted 13,500 page views.

How has this worked for The Enquirer? When do the public forums/story comments work well? Do you encounter ethical challenges? When? How do you address them?

The comments on the story about the woman who was killed by a drunken driver in a bar parking lot showed how coarse online anonymous posts can become. The verbal assault on her (why would she be out at 2 a.m. on a school night, etc.) had to be very hurtful to her family. The bigger issue with that situation is that we had put standards in place that would have said “no” to enabling conversation on that story. We had been steering away from stories that we could predict would bring out the worst in people … and top editors all agreed that decision should have been cleared. Obviously our system failed us, so we went to a default “no” on story discussions until we can get a better system in place and more clearly define and communicate standards.

We still are seeing good traffic from chats that we can monitor — the story about a local restaurateur who refused to serve O.J. Simpson in Louisville, for example, drew hundreds of comments and 67,000 page views. But we are being selective and not just turning conversation on every story without the ability to keep an eye on the comments.

What specific protocols and procedures have you put in place to facilitate the most productive online conversations? What can other news organizations learn from your experiences in this territory?

We find it best when we carefully choose the topic, require registration and then moderate the discussion. Even anonymous posters tend to be more civil when they have to do any sort of registration to join and know we and their fellow posters are watching.

That may cost us some traffic but we need to be comfortable with the conversation, and I still believe readers have higher expectations of online discussions hosted by our business than they see elsewhere in cyberspace.

Karen Gutiérrez is managing editor for one of The Enquirer‘s offshoot products, a Web site called

What is your sense of the pros and cons of encouraging the public to post comments to online forums and/or to story chats? How has this worked for When do the public forums for comments work well?

Public forums work well when you have a diverse group of people participating, because the different personalities tend to balance each other out. Some people become leaders, others agitators, others a calming presence. We run the gamut of moms — emotional, brainy, single, married, impulsive, measured, funny, long-winded, etc. The mix is very important. Forums can get out of control when they attract, say, mostly ideologues who drown out the other voices. I did some viral marketing through e-mail when we launched the site, and I tried to inform a wide variety of moms about the site with this in mind.

Also, I choose my top headlines on the site very carefully. Early on I put topics there that would appeal to a diverse group of moms. One time I promoted a playgroup for African-American moms. Another time a group for the moms of children with autism. It’s important to send these signals that the conversations are for everyone.

I have also learned to write headlines about controversial conversations in a way that invites thoughtful response, as opposed to knee-jerk crazy stuff. Today [May 17], for instance, one of our headlines links to a discussion on the site about teenagers who wear very baggy pants in an apparent imitation of “prison culture,” as one mom wrote. This is the type of thing that could get out of hand on forums with a certain audience.

The discussion has been going on for a while and has been very respectful, with moms even suggesting reading material on the issue, so I felt it was safe to link to. My headline was “What baggy pants say about teenagers,” and the photo shows only pants from the waist down, so the race of the teenager is not visible. The teaser under the photo says, “Moms discuss the origin of the baggy-pants phenomenon. Cardamom suggests reading Cora Daniels’ Ghettonation.”

You can see the discussion here.

Do you encounter ethical challenges? When and how do you address them?

There are certainly a lot of challenges for me, but I’m not sure they’re ethical ones per se, in the sense that I’m wrestling with how to do the right thing, or anything. Here’s an example: I’ve had two daycare centers object to posts made about their centers and call me. I have read those posts, agreed they were unfair and taken them down. It didn’t feel like an ethical quandary to me. I e-mailed the posters to explain what I was doing and told them it’s best to stick with the facts when they’re posting. None have complained or tried to re-post anything. The centers seemed pleased with how it was handled. (Promptness is very important.) One director told me he reads the site precisely to see if people are posting information they might not want to tell him directly. It’s as if he uses the site to see what he needs to fix about his business. Considering that we have 50,000 messages on the site, we’ve had remarkably few complaints of this sort.

My challenge is more along the lines of managing personalities and mediating disputes so that people continue to feel good about the site and continue to visit. Sometimes moms will e-mail me to say that a discussion has gotten out of hand or become “childish” and that I should weigh in or even lock the discussion to further posts. This is almost always because people have gotten very passionate about a subject and have started to call each other names instead of sticking to the issues, which is to be expected. I will usually wait a while to see if any of our regular posters add something to redirect the conversation. And then eventually I will post something to calm everyone down. On two or three occasions I have locked posts to further comment with a note at the bottom explaining why.

What specific protocols and procedures have you put in place for to facilitate the most productive online conversations?

One thing we’ve done is require full registration — name, e-mail and mailing address — in order to make posts. It’s important that people jump through some hoops first, to cut down on script kiddies and others who are just making trouble.

One of my other policies is to answer all e-mail promptly and personally. I would probably read a cincyMOMS feedback e-mail before I would read one from our publisher. This helps me stay on top of conversations so that I’m not too far behind if there’s a controversy. Personal customer service also helps people develop an attachment to the site. They get protective of it, which cuts down on irresponsible posting.

We’ve said all along that this site belonged to the moms themselves. We wanted them to feel in control, talking about what they want to talk about, as opposed to having content dictated to them by the newspaper. So I follow the moms’ lead. I do ask my colleagues and bosses for advice when I have a tough issue to mediate. But I’m not sure that any protocol or procedure could anticipate some of the situations that happen on forums, and a protocol that works well in one instance wouldn’t work well in another. This is an evolving venture for us, though, so I’m sure more procedures will develop as we learn more about what we need. Read more