Our team at Trusting News could make a long list of how journalists tell us they feel about online comments. It might feel cathartic to do that — who doesn’t love complaining about the insanity or hatefulness of strangers on the Internet?
Yet we also know how important it is to build connections between journalists and the people they aim to serve. We know those connections build trust. We also know one role of journalism is to host community conversations, and hosting takes work.
We like to think of that hosting role as similar to the one you take on if you throw a party at your house. Think about your prep work. Imagine you stock the bar, put on some music and throw open the door. And then you … leave. You hope (assume?) people will be on their best behavior, and you expect to come home to a house that’s still in order.
Ridiculous, right? We count on an event’s host to connect people, gently redirect someone who gets a bit unruly and call someone a cab and send them home if necessary. Everyone appreciates a host who values guest experiences. This is true in online comments as well.
Online comments also represent a rich opportunity for journalists to tell the story of their work, get on the record about their integrity and answer questions about their ethics and process.
– Joy Mayer, Trusting News director
WHERE TO START
Ready to invest a bit of time in the moderation of and participation in online comments? Here are some ideas for how to jump in. Check out our newest Trust Kit on comments for more ideas.
- Choose high-profile opportunities. We know time is tight, so pick some high-profile stories to moderate comments on, where interest is high. Start by clicking “like” on productive comments and looking for chances to thank people for their feedback. That takes very little time.
- Ask follow-up questions. Some commenters will be sharing their experiences or interests and curiosities. That’s a fantastic way that conversation can be an extension of journalism. Prompts like “What else do you want to know about this?” or “Have you seen this in your neighborhood?” can lead to story ideas and sources, and can turn the comments into a productive form of journalism.
- Educate people about your journalism. Because of their informal format, comments can be a great place to drop information and links about how you do your job. Look for chances to answer questions about the reporting and the coverage decisions. Remind people of your mission, your ethics, how you decide what to cover, who’s on your staff …. anything that feels relevant.
- Consider who’s reading (hint: it’s more than who’s writing). Remember you’re responding not just to the person who left a comment, question or complaint but to everyone else reading the thread. If you decline to engage, you are ceding the conversation to the commenters. Do you want people to scroll past an accusation about your work and not find an accompanying rebuttal? Don’t let your detractors have an open season on your credibility. And don’t let earnest, curious community members go unanswered when they inquire about your ethics and processes.
- Have a comment policy. Write a policy that can apply anywhere you’re hosting a conversation. Be clear about what behavior you will allow and what you want to encourage. Post your code of conduct or community guidelines on your website and pin the guidelines to social profiles and groups. Once in place, warn or ban people who blatantly break the rules. Doing so rewards people who follow the rules and it’s a sign of respect toward your commenting community. When people break the rules, use the situation as an opportunity to remind people of your guidelines by reposting or linking to them.
BORROW THIS LANGUAGE
One way we know comments can be key to building trust is when it comes to journalists’ investment in defending their integrity and educating people about how journalism works. The key is to do that without actually sounding defensive or ramping up an argument.
Be mindful of your tone. It can take a deft touch to respond to a cranky and/or uninformed commenter. Try to craft a response that is neither condescending nor defensive but instead takes the high road and assumes good faith. (Even if this specific commenter is not operating in good faith, others on the thread might have a similar version of the same question.) With that in mind, don’t put the staffers who tend toward crankiness and defensiveness in charge of your brand’s response. You want people who actually like other people to moderate comments.
Walk and talk a practice of civility. Model the behavior you want to see. And look for chances to remind people of your goals. One idea: When you delete comments, post a comment with an explanation. You could say something like:
“We know you value civility, and we do too. That’s why our comment policy sets some ground rules (include a link). We’ve banned a few commenters who were making personal attacks, and we’ll continue to keep an eye on things. Thanks to everyone who’s contributing to productive and respectful conversations.”
When you see a complaint in a comment, reframe it as an information gap. If someone incorrectly accuses you of something or makes an incorrect assumption about you, think of it as a sign that the person lacks important information. Reframe the complaint that way, then address it.
Here’s an example.
- COMPLAINT: You’re only writing about this business because you’re out to get them!
- INFORMATION GAP: Why do journalists find it important to write stories that are critical of local businesses?
- RESPONSE: The health department has found repeated violations at this restaurant that are a matter of public safety. As journalists, one of our jobs is to alert the community to how their government is functioning and also to share information that helps keep people safe. We will be sure to also share when these violations are cleared up. Thanks for commenting.
Your goal isn’t necessarily to convince this specific commenter to find your coverage fair. It’s to set the record straight in a public conversation, to everyone who’s listening.