The Center for Media Engagement (CME), in a study by by Ori Tenenboim and Gina Masullo Chen, has looked at how uncivil comments affect perception of a news site and ways journalists can address the problem. This project examined two main questions:
- Do uncivil comments on news stories make people perceive a news site
and other site users more negatively?
- Do people make this evaluation based on the first few comments they see
or based on the predominant tone of all the comments visible in the stream?
- Uncivility in comment sections can taint perception of a news brand.
- Setting a positive tone with the first few comments might not be enough.
- News organizations would benefit from improving comment sections.
Online comment sections provide a space for people to give an opinion, learn where others stand, and weigh in on stories that affect their communities. Yet, these sections can also be filled with disrespectful speech marked by profanity, name-calling, and yelling in all caps.
Previous research has found that uncivil comments made people rate a blog post or a news story more negatively.
News organizations that wish to attract and retain an audience should ensure that their comment streams are not overly uncivil. Some news organizations have disabled their comment sections, but we do not recommend this for all newsrooms. Citizen discussions about public affairs can play an important role in a democracy, and news organizations can help to facilitate these conversations: CME
For this project, CME looked at whether uncivil comments make people perceive other site users and the entire news site, not just the individual story, more negatively.
Some news organizations urge journalists to post the first comment to set a positive tone for the whole thread. This project tested whether this premise actually works to improve audience perceptions of other site users and the news site as a whole.
CME examined two main questions:
- Do uncivil comments on news stories make people perceive other site users and the news site more negatively?
- Do people make this evaluation about the news site based on the first few comments they see or based on the predominant tone of all the visible comments in the stream?
To answer these questions, CME conducted two online experiments with 520 people in the first experiment and 1,056 in the second.
What CME found about comments-section attacks
Uncivil comments taint perceptions of a news site
- People who viewed news stories with only uncivil comments had less positive attitudes toward the site and saw it as less valuable, compared to those who saw stories with only civil comments. Those who saw uncivil comments also felt less loyal to the site and less similar to the commenters.
Seeing civil comments first doesn’t matter
- CME expected people to view the news site more favorably if the first comments they saw on a story were civil. But CME did not find that. In fact, people’s perception of the site was almost the same whether they saw civil comments or uncivil comments first.
Mostly uncivil comment streams lead to negative perceptions
People had a more positive view of the news site and other site users if the comment stream they saw contained mainly civil comments. But the order of the comments (civil first or uncivil first) didn’t make much of a difference.
This research suggests people make judgments about a news site based on the predominant tone of the comments, not on whether the first comments are civil or uncivil.
These findings demonstrate that news organizations should focus on the tone of comments posted on their news stories. Merely starting a comment stream with civil comments is not enough.
Uncivil comments lead to negative perceptions of a News site
In the first experiment, CME showed people news stories with only uncivil comments, only civil comments, or a mix of civil and uncivil comments. CME found that news stories with uncivil comments lead people to view a news site and other site users negatively.
Specifically, people who saw only uncivil comments on news stories:
- Had less positive attitudes toward the site
- Were less likely to perceive the site as valuable
- Were less likely to report a sense of loyalty to the news site
- Were less likely to feel similar to other commenters on the site
Overall tone of comment thread matters more than tone of first comments
The goal of the second experiment was to figure out whether people made their assessment about the news site and other site users based on the tone of the first few comments they read or based on the predominant tone of the entire thread they viewed. Some people saw news stories that had an even mix of civil and uncivil comments. Others viewed news stories with an uneven mix.
There were two types of uneven mix: 75% uncivil and 25% civil, and 75% civil and 25% uncivil.
CME findings show that whether the first few comments were civil or uncivil didn’t matter much.
What mattered was the predominant tone of the overall comment stream. Specifically, CME found that when most (75%) of the comments were uncivil, compared to when most of the comments were civil, people:
- Had less positive attitudes toward the news site
- Perceived the news site less favorably
- Felt less loyalty to the site
- Felt less similar to other commenters
CME results suggest that uncivility in comment sections can influence how people perceive a news organization’s brand – which is key to attracting an audience.
Uncivility in comments sections can influence how people perceive a news organization’s brand – which is key to attracting an audience
The study shows that news organizations would benefit from improving comment sections.
Some organizations have tried to deter uncivility by encouraging journalists to highlight comments that are civil and thoughtful or to post the first comment to set a positive tone for a comment thread.
These practices are worthy, but they may not be enough. News organizations should focus on the whole comment stream or at least the parts that are visible when people visit the site.
CME research shows that audience members can handle some uncivility when it does not dominate the comment stream. But when 75% of the comments are uncivil, people’s perceptions of the site and the commenting space were less favorable.
In addition, the findings show that setting a positive tone in a comment stream may not be as simple as ensuring that the first few comments are civil. People did not evaluate the news site based on the first few comments, but rather on the overall tone of the visible comment stream. When most comments were civil, they rated the site more highly, even if the comment stream started with uncivility.
News organizations that wish to attract and retain an audience should ensure that their comment streams are not overly uncivil. Some news organizations have disabled their comment sections, but we do not recommend this for all newsrooms. Citizen discussions about public affairs can play an important role in a democracy, and news organizations can help to facilitate these conversations. (Download the complete report here)