Expert Commentary

User-generated comments, uncivil news site threads and public understanding

2012 study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication on the impact of reader comments on perceptions of bias in online news articles.

Angry Internet commenter (iStock)

A popular aspect of online journalism is the ability of users to quickly comment on news stories and posts. Depending on a site’s degree of moderation, such content can be an insightful exchange of opinions — or highly partisan rants, often about supposed media bias. News organizations have long grappled with ways to curtail online incivility yet keep dialogue open. Research suggests that such forums can serve as a proxy for public opinion. Could they also influence how readers perceive journalistic content?

The issue of how news organizations should handle comments has surfaced again in 2013 with the decision of Popular Science to shut down its online comment section on most articles, touching off a vigorous debate. “We have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters,” the publication notes. “But even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests.” Popular Science directly cites the scholarship of University of Wisconsin-Madison professors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, whose work has shown the negative effects of certain forms of online incivility on reader interpretation of stories.

Brossard’s and Scheufele’s 2013 study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, “The ‘Nasty Effect:’ Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies,” derives its conclusions from an online survey that featured an embedded experiment. A representative sample of Americans was asked to read an article about nanotechnology and then exposed to varieties of comments about the article. The findings were significant but not universally sweeping: Persons who were highly religious were, when exposed to uncivil comments, more likely to see nanotechnology as risky (in terms of potential water contamination); and more generally, those who did not support nanotechnology were more likely to see it as risky when exposed to uncivil comments. The authors note in a New York Times editorial based on the study, “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.”

engagingnewsprojectIn any case, a 2013 research report, “Journalist Involvement in Comment Sections,” from the Engaging News Project, run by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin, analyzes issues of participation and incivility across a sample of the news industry.

The research project, directed by Natalie Jomini Stroud, produces empirical evidence that reporter involvement can reduce incivility. But it acknowledges the risks. Rather than advocating a more closed position, the report’s authors suggest greater journalistic engagement:

First, news reporters can get involved in the comment section, engaging politely with site visitors. Although engaging with site visitors in a comment section may seem onerous, the reporter and station in our study did not expend extraordinary efforts to complete this task; the reporter interacted, on average, just over four times. Second, journalists can direct the conversation by asking questions instead of allowing a free-for-all in the comment section. Closed-ended questions, in particular, seem helpful for inspiring civil interactions. Even more, there is suggestive evidence that posing questions can increase time on page. The benefits are encouraging. From both a business and a democratic angle, engaging in comment sections has potential.

Another study relevant to this issue, “That’s Not the Way It Is: How User-Generated Comments on the News Affect Perceived Media Bias,” also investigated the extent to which user-generated comments on Internet news articles shaped readers perceptions. In the 2012 study, published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 214 participants read a neutral article on corporal punishment in elementary schools with comments that either supported or challenged the article. Afterward, the participants were tested for their perceptions of the article’s neutrality, public opinion on the issue and the comments attached to the article. The study was conducted by Eun-Ju Lee of Seoul National University.

Study findings include:

  • Given the way certain kinds of readers process news information, some cannot properly distinguish where information came from; the data suggest that “people might misattribute the opinions expressed in others’ comments to the news article.” Reader comments can, in effect, filter news: “User-generated comments accompanying news stories significantly altered the participants’ beliefs about what other members of the society think…. By changing the participants’ beliefs about the amount of public support, users’ comments exerted indirect effects on their evaluation of the news.”
  • Individuals who were invested in a topic and primed with comments supportive of their position were less likely to perceive hostile media bias in the article’s content than those who also read supportive comments but were less personally invested.
  • Opinions of participants who were less involved in an issue were not significantly affected by critical comments on media coverage. “Although they, too, inferred public opinion from users’ comments, they did not seem to consider it relevant when judging news bias.”
  • “All readers got a sense of what public opinion was on the basis of what the user-generated comments said, but when readers who considered the news topic to be more important to them inferred from the comments that public opinion was on their side, they saw significantly less bias in the news story.”
  • “Exposure to other readers’ comments concordant with one’s own position led to perceptions of more congenial public opinion … and the more congenial participants thought that public policy opinion was, the less hostile their perceptions of the news story was.”

Readers invested in an issue and fearful that their position is “losing ground” in the press are more likely to perceive hostile media bias, the researcher suggested. Comments that matched participants’ opinions on the issue reduced impressions of bias, while those that didn’t increased it. Invested readers may also read comments more carefully and process content differently than those less familiar with a topic.

Tags: cognition, technology

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