May 23, 2018

Media Adviser: help! They want me to start reading the comments section!

It's a truth universally acknowledged that a reporter should never, ever read the comments section. But what if they're forced to?

Rebekah Holt

Freelance journalist

Media Adviser is an advice column from journalist and psychotherapist Rebekah Holt that offers insight on recurring media dramas and their related ethical dilemmas.

Q: I work in news management in commercial TV news and have done for 22 years now and I want to ask about how to handle online comments. I started in TV before we had news presence online. If viewers had a problem, a complaint or a tip, then they called the reception and got put through to the news desk.

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9 thoughts on “Media Adviser: help! They want me to start reading the comments section!

  1. Ruv Draba

    In a fit of irony, I thought I’d post a comment here, Rebekah.

    I agree with you — mostly. Good journalism is the product of substantial intellectual and social capital; its value is in focusing that appropriately on whatever matters.

    Comments are akin to pamphleteering: best used by readers who don’t have some central platform but wish to discuss the issues published with whoever is reading them. And like pamphlets, the quality is mixed at best. Journalists don’t need that and generally shouldn’t use it: they already have a formal platform with what should be high levels of professional accountability, and can as easily start a blog for the informal stuff if they want.

    From what I’ve seen, if you engage in a discussion under your own article, you’ll likely drift into flattery, pedantry, or qualifications or explanations that probably should have been edited into the original article in the first place. So… I broadly agree.

    On the other hand, journalists are increasingly their own editors. They need an editor’s eye for how their article is landing; information and perspectives they may not be aware of or may not have considered. So I’d suggest skimming the comments or having someone do that for you.

    As for moderating them, moderation only works if you have a stable community, a clear focus on topic and strong community values. I’ve seen that work on groups of up to thousands, but when the distribution is into the tens or hundreds of thousands and comments are accepted from disposable accounts, it’s a mad-house in a jungle in a forest-fire. I’m not surprised that moderators churn so badly.

    There are some good self-managing trust systems around, though. The Discourse software works well for example. I don’t personally know of any journal using it but there are plenty of professional and social communities who do. I haven’t checked its scale, but I’m confident that it scales as well as most centrally-moderated systems.

    It’s also my personal view that newspapers need to re-envision themselves as the nucleus of a current affairs community. Journalists can report news, but also pose questions and provocations for community discussion. That sort of thing is faked on family news, talkback radio and reader polls, but newspapers can do it in earnest. I think communities want it, too — perhaps need it.

    But it needs to scale and be largely self-managing, so journalists can use their hard-won skills to best effect.

    Great article.

  2. Djbekka

    I have a different answer to the thoughtful engagement of Ruv Draba. Tell the digital marketing group to read the comments and sum them up in a table:
    serious comment, f**koffs, death threats, etc. Have them do it for a month and then provide recommendations for engagement with each type of comment. (Oh yes, and while they are at it, they could forward any useful comments to you). Just saying…

    1. Ruv Draba

      Djebekka wrote: Tell the digital marketing group to read the comments and sum them up in a table

      Increasingly you can get that level of summation in text-mining software too, categorising sentiment, subject, import and past participation. I think that’s especially useful for a communications company, since their business is largely built on influence and social reach. (And sadly, is also what a lot of news companies have become — commercial influence-peddlers.)

      Ideally though, journalism is a different beast, differentiating by subject knowledge, intelligence and independence. Its job isn’t simply to flatter and reflect community sentiment but to shed actionable light using current, relevant and accurate information its readers didn’t already have.

      So the key question is how you can test when you have insight rather than just influence, and here, editorial opinion isn’t enough. You need reflection from expertise across the community, since the community as a whole will generally know more than you.

      That assurance used to be provided by letters to the editor, but hardly anyone bothers with that nowadays. Instead, pithy comments come in alongside the rantings of Tinfoilberet73 and Antivaxx3000.

      That information needs to be read by someone, and passed back to close the loop; otherwise journalism loses any remaining vestige of accountable professionalism, and becomes merely a well-intentioned megaphone.

  3. kyle Hargraves

    Interesting assessment concerning the log book! After that some non-sequitor appeared.

    “News is in the battle for its life and it is not a war that is going to be won in the comments section with Craig. ”
    Unless Craig is amongst the 10% with more of a clue then the scribbler responsible for the story.

    > Tell digital marketing to stop grasping for clicks in the shallowest end of the pool.

    “Their job should include working out how to fund news coverage. Your job is to get stories over the line and on air”
    Yet, NOT direct the content to the LCM; any number of other rags are more than competent on that account.

    “turn them into a story that even Craig can understand in about one minute and 30 seconds every night and that doesn’t get your arse sued off”.

    If the story is factual AND (can be argued as being) in the public interest they you as safe as (well .. the place used to be a church).

  4. Di Keller

    Hahaha!! Well said 🙂

  5. shea mcduff

    “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a reporter should never, ever read the comments section.”
    “Universally acknowledged”?

    1. Ruv Draba

      Shea asked: ‘Universally acknowledged’?

      An ironic reference to popular wisdom, stolen from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’

      (You maybe had to be there. 🙂 )

      1. kyle Hargraves

        Such was the hope, nay the expectation, of the daughters of Vicars and Curates; Bishops less so at the beginning of the 19th century; indeed prior to and beyond.

        Is Harry a case in point? Miss Austin is responsible for rather more than that (less than plausible) observation.

        If all artists are thieves (D.H. Lawrence) then so, likely, are reporters.

  6. Andrea

    Surely you don’t include Crikey commenters Rebekah? Do you? Feeling belittled here!

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