Hey reporters: An alternative to #DontReadtheComments: Jump in

Several newsrooms are asking reporters to try participating in threads after research finds their involvement can improve the civility of comments. Plus: Nine tips for commenting as a reporter.

Never read the comments. How many times have you given that advice to a friend, or used it as an “I told you so”? The philosophy is so common that someone on Etsy offers a “Don’t read the comments” reminder card.

As a reporter, you likely know the frustration of seeing the comments on your story derail off-topic and devolve into name-calling shouting matches. But it turns out there may be a simple solution to the bad commenter problem: You.

When reporters get involved, it results in fewer uncivil comments, according to research by the Engaging News Project out of the University of Texas at Austin.

The study, which looked at 2,500 comments on 70 political posts by a local TV station, found that when a reporter jumped into the comment thread, uncivil comments declined by 15 percent. (Also notable: The study found no such improvement when the brand account commented.)

Natalie Jomini Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project, notes that there are limitations to the research and therefore other newsrooms may not see the same results, but adds, “I think it’s at least worth experimenting if you have the staff time.”

Philly.com recently started encouraging reporters to jump into the comments, and a little more than 10 percent of the staff has tried it so far according to Erica Palan, audience engagement manager at the Philadelphia Media Network.

When one columnist goes into the comment section now, Palan says, “it’s like a teacher walks into a classroom and suddenly all the kids are quiet and fold their hands at their desks.” But that experience isn’t universal, and depends a lot on the reporter and story topic. “This isn’t a 100 percent foolproof ‘this is how we cure the troll problem,’ but it helps.”

Reporters might find the transition to commenting harder than columnists and opinion writers.

“It’s a tricky space for a journalist to get involved in, particularly because you don’t want to be seen as expressing an opinion or having any sort of bias,” Stroud says.

Here are a few tips and best practices for reporters in comment sections:

Clarify factual points.

“Answer any questions for clarity sake, and remind people of the facts of the story,” says Lori Todd, social media editor at NPR. “Try to steer the conversation in positive ways to get people back to the facts.”

Respond to questions.

“There’s only so much you can answer in your story,” says Todd. When commenters are curious or confused about something, reply with additional reporting research or anecdotes that may have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Try to understand commenter motivations.

Annemarie Dooling, an expert on comment sections, says commenters are often used to being ignored, and sometimes feel like they have to scream to get a point across or to get your attention. “Remember that people are saying something because they want to be heard.”

Build relationships with commenters.

Dooling, who is now head of growth at Vocativ, says it can also be worthwhile to reach out to regular commenters one-on-one to get to know them and so they will know you. Dooling says Lindsay Abrams, a reporter who covers climate change, did this with positive results at Salon.

Encourage good behavior.

“Up-vote or like or reply to the good comments. … Make the good stuff float to the top,” Dooling says. “It’s easier to elevate good stuff than it is to constantly be playing whack-a-mole with the bad stuff.”

It’s OK to disagree.

“If somebody has a particular point that you want to disagree with, I think it’s OK to disagree with it if it’s fact-based,” says Palan. “There are conversations that you can have that are not opinion-based.”

Enlist help in navigating the rough waters.

“It can be a little bit daunting for reporters to figure out what to do when people do start being angry or attacking them,” Dooling says. “It’s really helpful to have someone nearby who understands user behavior to walk them through how to deal with these situations.” And if you encounter a comment with legal implications (such as a threat), learn who to call for help — don’t try to handle it on your own.

Engaging in the Comments Lite: Schedule a Q&A.

For stories that will generate a lot of conversation or for a big reporting effort, a Q&A is a good option that won’t eat up all your time. For a recent example of a reporter doing a excellent Q&A, Todd points to one on Facebook by Sarah Maslin Nir about her nail salon story for The New York Times. And at Philly.com, the Daily News announced in print and at the bottom of the story online that there would be a discussion with the writer for an hour in the comments section.

Recognize when you don’t have the time.

One of the concerns Stroud and her team at the Engaging News Project heard from journalists was that interacting in the comments could distract reporters from other work. If a story is likely to attract a lot of discussion or particularly vitriolic comments, be prepared to devote some time to it, either from a reporter, editor, or moderator. At Philly.com, Palan says if they are understaffed and unable to set aside that time (like in the event of breaking news, or worse: weekend breaking news), they may turn to their last resort: turning comments off altogether on that particular story. Vocativ also has turned off comments rather than leave them unmoderated while staffing up, Dooling says.