Monday, November 30, 2015

Where do user-generated news comments belong?

Lincoln Rinehart

The issue

A fundamental purpose of journalism is informing the public and promoting thoughtful discussion. News should prompt opinion holders to share their ideas, and uninformed community members to begin to form their own informed opinions.  Many news outlets have created comment sections on their websites where users can engage in discussion about any given article.  However, there is a limit on the usefulness of this discussion, and many times the discussion is... less than thoughtful.  News sites could experience outrageous criticisms about aspects of an article that can distract readers from the informational content within the actual article.  I believe unregulated user commenting on news sites could undermine the functionality of the news story.     

What contributes to the issue

Due to liability issues comments must be on a page separate from the article itself, or the comments must be consistently regulated to avoid libel lawsuits and to delete comments that are inappropriate. Inappropriate comments may come from users who are bashing the way the article was written, the author of the article or just ranting because they woke up on the wrong side of the bed.  A large contributing factor in what users say and how users say it online is anonymity.  As the Nieman Lab article stated, users are 'psuedonymous' when posting content on news sites - they feel as though they are anonymous because they commonly have no identity linked to their comment.  This anonymity means that users feel less accountable for what they say.  Allowing users total deniability for any comment they make frequently leads to uninformed, uncontrollable commenting.   

A common solution to the issue, and why it's successful

An article in Cnet explains that many news outlets, instead of promoting discussion on their news site, will attempt to move the discussion to social media by urging readers to share and comment on the story on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Social media provides effective platforms for discussing news content because the social media content is linked to the social media profile, which if it is truthfully representative of the owner, is usually preserved to reveal an appealing identity. Social media commenters may not want friends, family, employers, etc. to see the content they are posting if it is an angry rant about politics in a particular news article.  This self-regulation on social media allows users to engage in a more insightful conversation about a topic within a news article, rather than the particular story or how it came to be. 

The Cnet article cites an example of when attempting to enable user accountability failed.  When Google began to require Youtube commenters to identify themselves, users behaved just as rudely in commenting on content.  However, Youtube is not a reputable news source, and it is not generally identified as a site that promotes thoughtful discussion.  Only 1/5 of U.S. adults who use Youtube also receive news information on the site.  So although making users feel more accountable did not combat negative commenting on Youtube, I still argue that accountability would help foster meaningful discussion on social media sites where users more frequently obtain and discuss news information.     

Another significant contributing factor as to why social media is more effective for commenting on news information is that content shared on social media reaches a larger audience than the article would have if it was only posted on the news site.  This allows users in multiple different personal networks to contribute outsider information that could be left out of the community discussion if the article were not shared on social media.  A study released by Pew Research Center showed that nearly half of the 64% of U.S. adults using Facebook also receive news content from the site. Additional results in other social media platforms can be seen in the chart below.  Those who are receiving news from Facebook or other social media platforms may be more likely to share and discuss the news content on social media.  So overall, social media platforms are successful for discussing news information because 1) they promote thoughtful discussion because users are generally more accountable for comments that are linked to a profile and personal identity, and 2) the article reaches more readers, which allows more people to contribute to the discussion of the topic.

U.S. adults using social media platforms and U.S. adults receiving news from these platforms

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