How News Orgs Are Turning to Staff, Technology & Users to Improve Comments

In recent weeks, some journalists have argued that news sites should stop allowing anonymous comments. They’re an “invitation to mischief,” Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz wrote after the paper unmasked a judge who had been posting comments anonymously on Cleveland.com. The Batavian’s Howard Owens, meanwhile, said news sites that allow them are creating a “grievous ethical blunder.”

But as others have argued, the key to creating a healthier dialogue in comments sections might be less about whether news sites allow anonymous comments and more about how they moderate them.

Some news outlets, such as The Huffington Post, The Economist and The Sacramento Press, have tapped into technology, their staff and their audiences to help foster a better dialogue in the comments sections on their sites. Read on to find out what they’re doing and what you can learn from them. 

Huffington Post Press encourages users to help moderate comments, then gives them rewards

The Huffington Post, which allows anonymous comments, began awarding badges to users last week. The “Moderator” badge acts as an incentive for users to help the site moderate the estimated 2.3 million comments it receives every month. Currently, the site has 30 full-time and part-time staffers who moderate comments before they are posted. It also uses technology to flag comments that violate the site’s commenting policy.

Users who flag 25 comments that The Huffington Post ends up deleting will earn a “Level 1 Moderator” badge. If they flag 100 comments that the site deletes, they’ll become a Level 2 Moderator and will be given the ability to delete comments themselves. They’ll maintain this privilege so long as they handle the task responsibly. (The site also awards related “Networker and “Superuser” badges.)

Eric Hippeau, CEO of The Huffington Post, said the badges give users an incentive to become more involved with the content on the site.
 
“By giving people more visibility in terms of their role within the community, we make them more engaged,” Hippeau said in a phone interview. “It’s a little bit more fun for them and they get recognized by their peers.”

He noted that badges are also a simple but meaningful way to reward users who may spot profanity, personal attacks and racial slurs that may have slipped through in the site’s comments.

Some news organizations, hoping to discourage hurtful remarks, have disabled comments on certain stories. The (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune, for instance, doesn’t usually allow comments on stories involving gays, Muslims, crime, fatalities/suicides, local homes, distressed local companies or racially sensitive issues. Since the paper decided to start turning off comments on these stories, it has hired a dozen comment moderators who work as independent contractors from home.

“We still treat those … topics as defaulting to no commenting,” Terry Sauer, assistant managing editor/digital at the Star-Tribune, said via e-mail. “But because we now have the constant moderation we occasionally will allow commenting when we feel there’s a benefit to a discussion on particular stories.”

Similarly, the (Greensboro) News & Record decides on a case-by-case basis whether to allow comments on stories. News & Record Editor John Robinson said via e-mail that the paper has two staffers who help moderate comments and who pay more careful attention to stories about race, immigration and sex. Reporters are also responsible for monitoring comments on their stories.
 
In a recent column, Robinson argued that all the time spent moderating comments could be spent creating news content instead.

Economist uses reader debates & a “Conversation Cloud” to encourage thoughtful comments

Editors at the Economist have found that sometimes, comment moderation can actually lead to more thought-provoking content. As part of their moderation process, Economist editors recently began to write columns highlighting comments that advance the conversation on a particular topic. Highlighting constructive comments lets readers know that the site looks carefully at comments, and it motivates them to write thought-provoking comments.

A few weeks ago, The Economist also launched a “Conversation Cloud” — essentially a tag cloud that shows the most commented-on topics. The cloud appears when users click to comment on a story and features topics such as Barack Obama, Apple Computer or China. Users can click on the topic and then scroll through all of the related comments. There are a lot to sift through, as the site gets about 25,000 comments per month. 

“We realized that we needed to be able to help users find really interesting conversations to get them to contribute more to the debate and conversations on the site,” said Ron Diorio, vice president for product and community development at The Economist. “People are sort of familiar with tag clouds, and they’re really interested in the fact that something that’s so familiar has been applied in an innovative way to try to … navigate conversation.”

Sacramento Press staff member joins conversations, regularly communicates with commentors

On the Sacramento Press’ website, the comments section is titled “Conversation,” and each comment appears in the form of a pull quote. Recruitment Manager Casey Kirk, who moderates the site’s comments after they’ve been published, said by phone that the pull quotes and the word “conversation” emphasize the idea that commenting sections should foster healthy discussions about news.

Users can flag comments as “offensive,” “duplicate” or “spam.” When Kirk comes across a flagged comment or finds that the discussion thread is getting off-topic, she joins the conversation. For example, when a user posted a slanderous remark about a politician, Kirk commented in response, saying that while the site encourages spirited dialogue, it doesn’t allow personal attacks or offensive language. She then contacted the user and gave him the option of editing his comment, which he did.

Kirk said moderating the estimated 900 comments that the site gets each month has given her the opportunity to find citizen journalists who can create new content for the site. Recently, she asked a user who often contributes long, spirited comments if she would be interested in writing for the site.

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“We contacted her and let her know that we thought she had a lot of value to add to our site and would probably write some great stories,” said Kirk. “Our editorial department and copy editors have worked with her over the past few months and now she frequently writes stories about issues she’s very passionate and knowledgeable about, such as youth and violence in our community.”

Kirk said that in general, users are responsive, including those who post anonymously: “You can set up a commenting field and let everyone go wild, but if users know that there’s a presence and that someone’s actually watching the comments and talking to users about them, I think people are going to contribute a lot more constructive comments.”

The strategies that The Huffington Post, The Economist and The Sacramento Press have employed show the breadth of ways that news organizations can moderate comments. Where your news site fits on this continuum depends not only on technology and resources but on how central comments are to your site’s strategy and overall goals.

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