"Should journalists always read the comments underneath their articles?"

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 26 January 2011

I seem to be on a nostalgia speaking circuit at the moment, as today I am in Leeds, where I studied at Uni, and a couple of weeks ago I was speaking at Bush House, on the very floor where I had my first BBC desk a decade ago.

I was talking there to the World Service web production team - and the Bush House mice - about the transformation digital media had brought between the audience and the media companies serving them.

At the end of the talk, one of the questions was:

"Do you think journalists should always read the comments underneath their articles?"

I have to say that my answer oscillates.

On a personal basis, having been using the web for a long time, it seems inconceivable to me that I would ever publish something on the internet and not go back to see if it had generated any comments. Whether it is on this blog, on guardian.co.uk, or when I write guest pieces for sites like TheMediaBriefing or Journalism.co.uk, I always read the comments and respond where appropriate. I can't imagine working any other way.

So on that basis, my answer is very firmly yes, of course journalists should read the comments underneath their articles.

However, then I waver.

I, of course, have the luxury that I don't have to consistently file a specific word count to this blog, or make sure it gets published everyday. Equally, even with 'dofollow' comment spam, I don't get the volume of comments on here that a mainstream news site does. Crucially, I don't specifically attract commenters who hold views contrary to the brand values of the site, in the way that news sites attract polarised political detractors.

I spent a very uncomfortable lunch once with a Guardian columnist talking about how personally they took the criticism of them on the website, and I'm not sure how much value I'd place on having n hundred comments left on this blog every day mostly saying "You are wrong" with varying degrees of civility.

And so I can quite see the argument that journalists should be free from the burden of having to go back to every piece they've filed in last week or so to catch up with the latest in the comment thread.

But then I waver again.

Not reading the comments under your piece on the web is like inviting people into your home for a conversation, then not even listening to a word they say, let alone responding. If nobody in your organisation beyond the moderation team is reading this content, what is the point?

That simply isn't how the two-way medium of the web works.

Next...

The question is, of course, if journalists don't have the time or inclination to read the threads, then who should be? Tomorrow I'll have a follow up blog post on this theme, looking at the role of community management and user experience design on the commenting systems of news sites.

You can still sign up to see me talking in Leeds at lunchtime today.

currybetdotnet: Best of the blog 2011 brings together over 50 of the best posts on this blog from 2011, covering topics such as live blogging, community and social media for news websites, and the future of digital media. It features write-ups of talks by Guardian journalists including Paul Lewis, Matthew Wells, Andrew Sparrow and Chris Elliot, and behind the scenes looks at Guardian products like the Facebook and iPad apps. It also has transcripts of Martin Belam's talks at EuroIA, the UPA conference, Polish IA Summit, Content Strategy Forum 2011, FutureEverything and Hacks/Hackers London.
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12 Comments

It depends...are comments feedback or a discussion within the audience? Both are valid. At least one is the ideal, but just because the web can be a 2-way medium, it doesn't mean it always is or should be. I'm perfectly happy to comment on this blog entry knowing that it may or may not be read by the author and other readers. If I wanted to send the author a direct message I'd do that instead.

Perhaps the number of people who "Subscribe to get subsequent comments sent to you by email" is an indicator of what the readers expect to get from comments? I very rarely select that option.

as a journalist is very important for me to see the feedback of what I'm writting. I read even the comments which are clearly written in a politicall way because you can see than the trends in the view of this people, even if the comments are with varying degrees of civility. you have to be able to have a big picture of the mass of people which is reading your articles. so, yes, a journalist has to make an effort to read all of the comments. nothing bad comes from there.

i like it when i sense/know the the poster reads comments. it makes me feel listened to and engaged

i tune out of blogs that don't give me any response or sense that my comment and interaction is appreciated

I always attempt to make an effort to read all comments. I find it contrary to the point of writing an article in the first place if not to retrieve in some manor the opinions and views of the subject audience that is reading your articles. Especially being that the internet creates the perfect forum for the general public to access the individuals generating the content that sparks the conversation.

"...it seems inconceivable to me that I would ever publish something on the Internet and not go back to see if it had generated any comments." - sums it up for me Martin. Unless I am very busy, I will always try to check for comments on articles I have written, and check for replies to my comments.

I believe commenting is fundamental to the whole blogging system.

You write the content not just to get it out of your head, but to see what others think about the topic or your writing!

Hi Martin,

I believe you should read the comments on your blog and do read the comments on my blog) for a few reasons (in increasing order of importance):

  • Weed out the worst of the comment spam
  • Remove any offensive content
  • See how my audience is reacting to my writings
  • Get ideas for future postings (Although reading other people's blogs often gives me that)

On the other hand, it can become just be another displacement activity to avoid writing a new blog entry ... :)

I'm covering this briefly in an inaugural lecture I'm giving on March 3 and my feeling that it all comes down to ego. It's the height of arrogance to think that your journalism cannot be improved by looking at comments - whether that's the individual journalist or the news organisation that doesn't allow time for that. Some research I did on blogging journalists a couple years ago suggested that comments had played a really important role in how their journalism changed, for the better.

I guess journalist should read the comments below their articles. This is to know the reactions of people regarding his/her article.

Not all comments are nonsense, mostly people give feedback on what you write.

Some also give ideas on how to enhance your article. Just do not take seriously the negative ones because it might discourage you to write more. Instead, focus on good comments.

I don't think there's an inherent obligation to read and respond to comments as a blogger, because different bloggers have different intentions. Some bloggers write for themselves after all, and perhaps don't give two hoots if people comment. Others seek and encourage discussion. Journalists meanwhile write because they're paid. Ostensibly they might be seeking to encourage discussion, but actually it's about money. Comments in that sense are an indication that they're on the road to making a profit.

It seems to me that whether or not the author reads the comments his/herself, someone should be reading and responding. It's a basic principle if user interactivity is maintained. If a journalist wants to increase his/her own niche and reach, I believe they'd be rewarded richly by personally replying.

People simply like to feel acknowledged or appreciated in one way or another. I would say its a must to go back to read comments and interact with your readers as it can create loyalty to your blogs and even provide ideas for future articles.

As a cynical reader, I think comments are very important. I've read an article that I wasn't sure about initially only to scroll down and see some very strong counter points on topics I am admittedly unfamiliar with. Normally, this causes me to do more research into whichever topic I'm reading and try to come up with a balanced perspective.

Do you feel, as a journalist, that this could be beneficial to others of your trade as well? Your work seems pretty well rounded, but across the pond here in the states most of our "journalists" are simply spin doctors behind a keyboard or news desk. Many of our mass media articles are watered down and biased to a point where journalism is hardly noticeable.

Anyway, thanks for writing with content!

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