July 16, 2013

ESPN this week becomes the latest major news organization to rely upon social media to help civilize its online comments.

Starting Wednesday, ESPN.com’s 25 million active users will have to log in through a Facebook account if they want to participate in online conversations on ESPN.com stories.

Patrick Stiegman, editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, said by phone that three factors drove the company’s decision to switch to Facebook for commenting: “a tremendously smooth transition for fans,” many of whom already have Facebook accounts; increased visibility for ESPN content beyond the walls of ESPN.com; and a desire to “emphasize quality of comments over the quantity of comments.”

The daily comment count on ESPN.com averaged 230,000 posts in June, according to ESPN’s Kevin Ota. That’s 6.9 million comments just last month. But while the level of public discourse on ESPN.com is enviably robust by any news organization’s standards, it isn’t necessarily always civil or thoughtful.

“We want the conversation section of our stories to be a marketplace of ideas,” said Stiegman, indicating that “healthy disruption” can be a good thing for conversations.

“We want people to be candid — actively engage in strong and thorough debate, but do it in a way without anonymity,” he said. “Agree or disagree, but do it in a way that is as productive and civil as possible.”

GateHouse Media is another large news organization that recently layered third-party social media authentication over its online commenting system in an attempt to make comments less anonymous.

As of June 27, anyone interested in leaving a comment on one of GateHouse’s 405 locally-focused news websites, must now register and sign in through a Facebook or LinkedIn account, “which we hope will make readers think twice about posting inflammatory, hateful or objectionable content,” according to a release posted on GateHouse news sites.

“We hope the tendency for readers to use their real names on their Facebook and LinkedIn accounts will help to elevate the debate,” wrote Therese D. Hayt, executive editor of GateHouse Ohio Newspapers.

David Arkin, GateHouse Media’s vice president of content & audience, explained in a blog post that his news organization’s move to social authentication through a system by Viafoura is not meant to squelch anyone’s free speech rights.

“We simply want a better online conversation,” Arkin said. “We want a more thoughtful conversation. We want accountability. We believe these are things most of our readers want as well.”

In a follow-up email interview, he said:

We were previously using our content management system’s commenting platform. CMS’s really offer the bare bones when it comes to commenting systems and as we developed a view that we wanted our commenting platform to be a more engaging and participatory platform, we knew that we needed to find a different solution. Simply, we needed a platform with more tools: Social log ins, ability to post photos and videos in a comment, ranking comments and getting social badges cheap jordans from china. It had become pretty clear that readers wanted to do more than just comment on a story and we had a unique opportunity to make our commenting platform more of a social and participatory experience by going in a different direction.

With anonymity and pseudonymity existing as a constant in the equation of online comments since news publishing blossomed on the Internet, wrangling user posts has caused huge headaches for news organizations. It’s not easy for stressed newsrooms to gather and produce the news and act as the “civility police” at the same time. Cultivating online community takes effort and attention.

Ideally, the comments section of a news site should provide relevant and valuable context for stories by encouraging users to pose unanswered questions or well-informed counterpoints. Too often, however, poorly designed comment systems allow anonymous trolls to hijack conversation streams. Fake names usually give way to nasty comments, leaving overwhelmed newsrooms responsible for comment moderation.

Insidious incivility in the comments can deter the more levelheaded members of an online community from participating, and can inflict damage on a news organization’s reputation. (I’ve heard anecdotes from reporters whose sources refused to go on the record specifically because they didn’t want to be skewered in the anonymous online comments below the story.)

Most news organizations would prefer if members of their online communities could police themselves. But users need effective tools to enforce civility — ones that can both flag offensive content and highlight the most thoughtful contributions. Facebook’s semi-enforced “real names” requirement seems to be the suitable compromise for many news sites since it makes commenters a bit more accountable. Plus, Facebook’s social commenting plug-in is free for anyone to use, even ESPN.

ESPN’s decision to route comments through Facebook follows that of many other news sites, including USAToday.com, miamiherald.com and chicagotribune.com

Testing Facebook commenting

Stiegman said ESPN.com chose to switch to Facebook social commenting after testing it successfully with select audiences.

Facebook commenting has been used for some time on the popular ESPN-affiliated blog Grantland.com and on the women-centric site ESPNW, Stiegman said.

Last November, the sports network added Facebook commenting to the Major League Baseball section of its website to track fans’ reaction. Initially, ESPN.com online producers noticed a 25 percent reduction in the volume of comments posted on MLB pages, Stiegman said.

But there was an noticeable upside, too. The civility of the comments greatly improved, Stiegman said, in part because of “a lack of anonymity helped bring about stronger quality of conversations.” Fewer comments were flagged as inappropriate. ESPN.com also saw growth in the numbers of users extending the conversation into Facebook, creating “a halo effect of bringing traffic back to our site,” he said.

Online commenting has been a major part of ESPN.com’s online strategy since 2007, Stiegman said. Fans are passionate about their teams and are going to talk about them, and ESPN wants fans to be able to engage in conversation right on its pages in “a comfortable, safe environment.”

Stiegman said the sports network does not pre-moderate comments before they are posted on the site. “We do not moderate a particular point of view,” Stiegman said. No one from Facebook will be moderating the comments posted on ESPN.com either, Stiegman assured. Producers at ESPN.com and the third-party comment monitoring company ESPN works with will continue to be responsible for dealing with comment issues as they arise.

Stiegman said he understands not all current ESPN users are happy about the change to Facebook comments and can respect their reasons for not wanting to use it. ESPN doesn’t want to alienate fans who don’t use Facebook, but said “quality and engagement are factors on our side,” he said.

The trade-off

One of the arguments against Facebook commenting is that the social media giant gains coveted access and exposure to a trusted news organization’s established audience for very little investment. Meanwhile, news organizations end up sacrificing the direct control they’ve held over their audiences and become somewhat “subordinate in status compared to the social media giants.” And there’s the fact that not everyone has a Facebook account.

The trade-off right now seems to be worth it though. Busy newsrooms get to hand Facebook most of the responsibility for comment accountability. In return, the journalists get more breathing room to focus on their core business – reporting and producing news stories.

The Hartford Courant (my former employer) switched to Facebook commenting on its website in early 2012 after “commenting had gotten to place on our site that was not productive,” Christine Wolfram Taylor, the Courant’s acting digital platform manager, said by phone.

Taylor said Facebook commenting tied more accountability to the comments, which was a big improvement over Tribune Interactive’s pseudonymous commenting system.

“The volume of comments has decreased, but the quality of the comments has definitely increased,” Taylor said. “Yes, we still have trolls. They will always exist, but they get called out more because of Facebook. The public does a good job of policing the comments.”

Facebook provides moderation tools for online producers, the ability to ban repeat offenders and blacklist bad words. But it’s not a perfect system. There are privacy issues with comments appearing online in places users did not expect, Taylor said. She added that the Courant is actively researching other commenting solutions.

“We’re always looking to improve the discourse on the site, and ways to include more people in the conversation,” Taylor said.

Stiegman also said ESPN’s move to Facebook commenting makes sense for the company right now, but it isn’t a panacea for ESPN.com. He said the company is continuing to look at other commenting systems as well.

The Dallas Morning News changed to a Facebook-only approach for comments on its website in February 2012. After a year, the news organization converted to a third-party social media integration system provided by Gigya. Gigya offers six ways for users to sign in to leave a comment: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google or WindowsLive.

“It has reduced the number of trolls noticeably,” Michael Landauer, digital communities manager at The Dallas Morning News, said in an email interview. “There’s a lot more work you have to do to create a fake account and come in and throw verbal grenades. I think it just isn’t worth it for most people.”

When the Dallasnews.com commenting system was more open and anonymous, a total of 18 people in the newsroom were assigned to take turns moderating comments, Landauer said. The change to Facebook comments and social authentication drastically reduced the number of comments – about a 40 percent drop.

“Now I do it myself once or twice a day, responding to about 20-40 flagged comments each day,” Landauer said. “Of those, about 20 percent merit being taken down.”

News organizations that choose to add to social media authentication could further follow the lead of dallasnews.com and direct unhappy users to an old-school alternative. This disclaimer is posted above all dallasnews.com online comment boxes:

“If you do not want to comment with a social network, please consider writing a letter to the editor.”

Here’s a chart I created that outlines some more specifics:

Online news commenting systems, July 2013 by Marie Shanahan

Marie K. Shanahan is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut who tracks trends in online news commenting as part of her research. She spent 12 years as an online editor at The Hartford Courant, where anonymous online comments caused her many headaches.

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Marie K. Shanahan is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut who tracks trends in online news commenting as part of her…
Marie Shanahan

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