Why tone and context are crucial to better newspaper website comment threads

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 9 July 2010

Behind The Times paywall this week there was a live Q&A session with Giles Coren. One of the questions was how he felt about unkind comments underneath his articles, and he gave a very robust response which featured a red hot poker being shoved somewhere. He seemed to have a very healthy attitude to what gets written 'below the line', but reader comments can be an emotive subject for journalists.

I occasionally get very critical responses here on currybetdotnet, and if I do write anything for guardian.co.uk outside of the safety of the geeky Inside Guardian blog, I usually expect to be picked over in the comments. Having been hanging around the web for 14 years or so, I've developed automatic 'troll goggles', whereby I simply skip over people being mean, petty and unhelpful in comment threads and dismiss them.

I don't think it is a skill or a thick skin that enough journalists or columnists have, and it is easy to see why criticism from readers can be so hurtful.

Essentially, if you were a columnist, your ideal day used to be waiting for the phone to ring and listening to an editor say "We need 750 words on topic x", writing 750 words on topic x, then getting a phone call from the editor saying "Thank you, that was just what we were after", then getting paid.

Now, even if you got close to that ideal day, it would run something more along the lines of:

  • Wait for the phone to ring and listen to an editor say "We need 750 words on topic x"
  • Write 750 words on topic x
  • Get a phone call from the editor saying "Thank you, that was just what we were after"
  • Watch as 40 random anonymous people calling themselves things like shark_face and guns_not_hospitals79 add comments to your article like "I can't believe you got paid to write this", "You know nothing you pathetic lazy journalist" and "Rubbish. I don't buy paper y to get this drivel. Why not do some proper journalism instead about really worthy and important things?".
  • And then you get paid less than you did before there was lots of user-generated content in the world.

When people ask me why the comments underneath articles can seem so mean-spirited, I always quote my colleague Meg Pickard, who argues that, for one thing, if you commission or write something provocative, you should expect people to be provoked. Likewise, a light-hearted treatment of a subject people care passionately about taken out of context can enrage people.

So I also still keep coming back to the way that news organisations signal 'tone' online.

If you've reached the funny pages of a Sunday supplement it is obvious what tone to expect. However, when all content is presented in a somewhat generic article format, that nuance is lost. At the extreme it can lead people to think that The Guardian's "official editorial line" is to call for the assassination of an American president. Most often though, it just leads to a disconnect between reader expectation and the article, voiced as frustration in the comments.

This struck me particularly when looking at the discussion that formed underneath Peter Singer's recent piece on the ethics of cheating in football on Comment Is Free. If it had been published in an ethics journal, the letters to the editor would have been about ethics. If it had been published on a niche philosophy or ethics site, you'd also expect discussion to revolve around ethics.

But publish it on a generalist news site like guardian.co.uk and the talk quickly turned to a debate about football, chiefly from our active football community, with over 400 comments posted. Not only that, but many readers critiqued the assertions in the article as if it had been written by a specialist sports journalist, not a professor of bioethics from Princeton.

For me this is an effect of the way that online we still do the 'general purpose bundle' that the print product is. Why wouldn't you expect to discuss the football angle of the article, on a website with a big football section?

One of the key things to understand when you think about community interaction on a news website is that online communities generally form around niche interests in a TV show, a band, a film, a hobby or a game. "News" is not a niche interest in itself, and so newspaper websites tend to end up with a sprawling mass of different communities of interest, stumbling across each other whenever their interests happen to collide. In short, newspaper websites do not have 'a community', they have various 'communities of interest'.

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