Expel Trolls, Racists and Promote Good User Comments on News Sites

I don't believe that the majority of people on the Internet are racist, vulgar or acidic; it's just that after the trolls and racists are allowed to flourish, most of the normal people looking for civil conversations leave.

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But it doesn't have to be that way. User comments on news sites can be civil, on-topic and worthwhile. Between my work at BeatBlogging.org and my reporting for two recent posts on online commenting, I've found a lot of ways to encourage such discussion.

Here are some down-and dirty-tips on how to cultivate a stronger user community and get rid of those trolls. I'm focusing on tips that don't require a new commenting system, programming ninjas or anything else fancy.

Be an active participant. In my work at BeatBlogging.org, I found that comments tend to be more civil and on-topic when journalists are active in the feedback area. Journalists who care about the comments and commenters tend to have commenters that care.

This means reading and responding to user comments. The SciGuy, Eric Berger, responds to users to advance discussions and dispel untruths. Because he is so active in commenting, he has one of the most impressive communities around a blog that I have seen.

Berger, a science reporter and beatblogger for the Houston Chronicle, said in an interview that users behave differently when they know people are reading their content. "If people know that someone is going to read what they're writing and perhaps judge them, they'll be more careful with what they write," he said.

Berger has made interacting with users a big part of his job. Besides engaging users in comments, he also conducts chats on his blog (often with scientific experts) and is active on Twitter.

"Hoist" comments. This practice involves acknowledging when users post great comments and giving them more prominence. For instance, let's say that someone leaves a stimulating comment on a story of mine. I would take that content, elevate it to its own post, cite the author and start a new discussion around it. Bloggers call this practice different things, with "Comment of the Week" (or day) being the most popular. Whatever the name, it's a great feature that doesn't require a lot of work and is popular with users.

Reporters and bloggers have told me that giving users a pat on the back encourages better and more civilized discussions. When you hoist comments, it shows that you read and value users' contributions.

Use "blog backs." In Blog backs, a blogger hoists strong comments, clarifies points that commenters didn't understand and acknowledges mistakes. Jon Ortiz, who reports on state workers for The Sacramento Bee, was one of the first beatbloggers to adopt this feature and talked to me about it for BeatBlogging.org. He said blog backs serve to "review your thoughtful and provocative online comments, amplify points, answer questions, correct our mistakes and humbly accept your warranted criticism."

Ortiz uses blog backs as launching points for new stories and as a way to coax potential sources out of the woodwork. They also produce ample traffic and comments for The State Worker blog (the most popular blog at the Bee).

A blog back does take more effort than a "Comment of the Week," (though it's still not arduous) but Ortiz has found a lot of success with them in terms of traffic, comments and user response. He said it takes him about 20 minutes to create each blog back post because he notes interesting comments as he moderates them.

Solicit advice from users and compile tips in a post. This practice involves asking users for tips on a subject and compiling the best ones in a separate posting. Tawnell Hobbs, education reporter and beatblogger for The Dallas Morning News, asked teachers last week to give parents tips on helping their children have a successful school year. She looked through the comments and wrote this follow-up post with the 10 best suggestions.

This is a simple idea that gets users involved and doesn't take a lot of a journalist's time or effort. When a journalist starts creating content based on user suggestions, it shows that she values her commenters. This idea may not apply to every journalist or beat, but it works well for an education beatblog such as the Dallas ISD Blog that has a loyal and knowledgeable base of users (many of whom are teachers, administrators and parents involved with the Dallas Independent School District). 

Moderate. Many reporters, editors and bloggers swear by moderation as an excellent way to cultivate a meaningful community and keep comments civil. I don't think moderation is a requirement for a strong community, especially for sites such as Slashdot that have good commenting systems. But for most news organizations, moderation makes sense -- especially if you don't have a commenting system that enables users to police themselves and rate one another's posts.

Many of the best beatbloggers I followed when I worked on BeatBlogging.org -- Kent Fischer, Eric Berger, Sara Neufeld -- moderated their own comments. They viewed it as part of the job. They did not allow vulgar, unproductive or off-topic comments, and they were able to build strong communities around their beatblogs.

John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., told me in an e-mail that moderation is especially powerful if the reporter or blogger is an active participant in discussions. (This job often falls to site editors.)

"The moderator can encourage the conversation and use his expertise and knowledge as a guide," he said. "As people know that they aren't going to be allowed to trash another personally simply because they can, their behavior improves. Or they leave. That, presumably, encourages other voices to join in where they may once had been too civilized to step into the fray."

Use "verified" accounts, with real identities. Many news organizations require users to sign up before they can comment, which cuts down on some of the spam, trolling and negative posting. Pegasus News has a verified account program that takes registered commenting a step further. People who agree to use their real name and can confirm who they are over the phone get a verified tag next to their names.

Mike Orren, published and founder of Pegasus News, said that as of July 24, 55,867 comments had been posted on his site and just 268 comments had been removed, mostly for spam. (The site has about 23,000 registered users.) Orren and his staff have a list of best practices that they follow, with verified accounts being one of the more unique.

"And while I won't say every commenter is deserving of a Pulitzer, comments stay pretty civil, on-topic and often provide our best story tips," he said in an e-mail. "That's why I get so frustrated when I see people acting like commenting is beyond the ken of a news org."

Use the ban hammer. Reporters, bloggers and editors tell me that some people just have to be banned. You can delete their comments, warn them about intolerance and hate speech, and try to steer them back on topic, but there's no reasoning with some people.

Don't let those users spoil everything. If trolls take over, people looking to engage in constructive discourse go elsewhere. "Don't fear the reaper," said the News & Record's Robinson. "Ban the repeat offenders."

These are just a sampling of ways to foster better comments from users. What are your favorites?


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