How to make your comments section a walk in the park.

Are negative comments and harassment an unwanted “feature” of your articles? Unsure on how to respond to and ignite in conversations online? This field guide was designed to assist journalists navigate the muddy waters of the comments section.

Journalists are often asked to engage on social media or in the comments, or may engage because they think it’s a good idea. But there is little training or guidelines about how to participate effectively. News sites and journalists need to accept the responsibility of improving the quality of online conversations around their articles and manage readers’ discourse.

The internet is a shared public resource that should be treated the same as other public resources we share IRL, such as a public park. People are starting to compare online communities and audiences to cities that aren’t safe to walk around in anymore. So, ask yourself: Is the comment section of your article a secure, clean public park? Or, the part of the city no-one wants to walk through?

In the age of content saturation, news outlets are further pressed to engage their readers on a large scale. While comment sections can, at the best of times, become havens for dynamic, civilized discussions with one another, frequently they become overloaded with spam, harassment, and vitriol. Readers want to be heard. Are you listening? It is imperative to ensure that it is easy for them to talk with you — the journalist — news publications, and with one another. Facilitating and crafting good discourse for online conversation can be a personal and business opportunity.

As a journalist, an audience exists around you — are you proactive in building it and its reputation? Consider your readership and commenters as a community around your work. The best way to build an audience is by listening and engaging with your community. By being active in the conversations, you not only uncover potential stories, sources, and connections, but you will also increase trust and credibility. Building an audience around your work will also affect the dissemination and promotion of news.

“Uncivil comments differently affect observers’ evaluations of the discussion atmosphere, the credibility of the news outlet, the quality of its stories, and ultimately observers’ willingness to participate in the discussions.”

Why?

  • More harm is done when comments are left unmoderated
  • By responding to comments and moderating them, you are actively crafting your audience and environment
  • You have the power to combat naysayers and those who promote distrust and confusion
  • Fighting abuse and harassment is a vital part of empowering people to protect freedom of expression and keep the internet for everyone
  • News outlets and journalists need to respond publicly to uncivil comments and show they prefer high-quality discussions
  • By not taking an active stance, it decreases not only the credibility of the news outlet but also the credibility of its stories
  • Your reputation determines the quality and characteristics of the contributors you get

“27% of American internet users chose not to post something online after seeing someone being harassed. Toxic language makes it hard to discuss important issues.

Here’s a handy list for you to leverage when responding and diving into the comments that will help you identify harassment and fallacies in comments.

Identifying harassment and fallacies in comments:

1. Was effort made to justify their views and explain their thinking? Was the intention to inform and convince rather than to insult and enrage? Example: “Why is this news?” would be rejected if it lacked further explanation.

2. The New York Times won’t tolerate “personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, name-calling, incoherence, and SHOUTING.” And neither should you.

3. Are they critical of the article or publication? That is ok, as long as it applies directly to the article in question, they are on topic, and they are criticizing ideas, but not people. Example: If someone comments with conspiracy theories and your article is not about that.

4. Is this comment or conversation toxic, inflammatory or insubstantial? This would be defined as rude, disrespectful or unreasonable, that would likely make you want to leave the discussion.

5. You may not agree with what they are saying, but try not to make moral judgments on the commenters. You should not be seeking to police opinions. Diverse viewpoints make for better discussions.

6. Try the ASSHO Test from Guy Kawalski

Aggressive: “You left-wing libtard…”

Stupid: “Rising temperatures are good for the planet.”

Spammy: “We can help you design an attractive website.”

Heinous: “Those kids look like illegal immigrants with no rights in this country — they should be thrown out of the country or shot.”

Off-the-wall: “Hillary was running a pedophile ring.”

How? Guidelines for interaction:

1. Reinforce good behavior. Let them know that you appreciate constructive contributions that are appropriate and helpful. Highlight and engage in positive contributions.

2. Be open, honest and listen. If you are approachable, level-headed and understanding, they will most likely respond and lower their guard.

3. Don’t fan the fire. Monitor your tone and only comment if it improves the conversation. Make sure your reply/conversation sounds like you want to help. Moderation is an art form.

4. Have compassion. It’s not the same as politeness or niceness, and it often involves speaking honestly and assertively. “If it is not tempered by compassion and empathy, reason can lead men and women into a moral void.” — Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

5. Be in the right state of mind. Don’t respond late at night when you’re tired, after drinking, if you’re overly upset or in an otherwise emotionally or physically distressed state. Take a quick break, watch a cat video, switch to another task and then come back and review before posting. Remember that you represent yourself — as your personal brand — and your employer in the comments.

6. Be precise, responsive and accurate. Be the example of the type of commenter you wish to attract.

7. A fail-safe sentence to reply with, and keep in mind for yourself is: “Do you have any concerns that headhunters, customers, partners, etc. will negatively view your comment so that it could affect your career or blowback on your business?” People do police themselves; give them the opportunity to. You may see some deleted comments after you respond with something like that.

8. Focus on what was said, not who said it or why you imagine they did.

9. Avoid things being interpreted as confrontational or an attack by avoiding using statements with “You are [something negative]” and rather frames it regarding your subjective perception such as “This comes across [something frustrating] to me.”

10. When responding, try to make any questions open-ended and encourage them to justify the “why” in their beliefs and views. You can do so and seed the conversation in the comments by:

  • Posing a question yourself! For example: “Do you agree with this legislative bill? Why or why not?”
  • Answer legitimate questions
  • Ask further questions of commenters and encourage conversations
  • Provide additional information
  • Encourage them to ask questions
  • Invite an expert, or someone mentioned in the article, to contribute in the comments

Even though your response rate could be affected by factors such as your personal temperament, the topic, the sites you write for, and the level of engagement, a good rule of thumb is to be most active and engaged in the comments and monitoring within the first 24 hours. This can be especially helpful as they may have found errors or incorrect information.

When you are consistent and proactive in fostering reasonable discourse in the comments, don’t be surprised when your audience becomes more engaged and may even step in to help. Above all remember article comments should be meant to encourage a culture of respectful conversation and debate.

Here’s a tl;dr checklist for keeping sanity in the comments.

  • Reinforce good behavior
  • Be open, honest and listen
  • Don’t fan the fire
  • Check yourself before you wreck yourself
  • Keep calm and moderate
  • Be precise, responsive and accurate
  • Have compassion
  • Have a cool, level head
  • Keep it on topic

Program Manager @ Google. I write stories around: Design, Community, Product, Sustainability, Philosophy, Work, Career.