citizenjournalism · online journalism · writing

Entering the fray: When should a journalist join the discussion in comments following a news story?

1378634_man_with_a_megaphone_2This seems to be a question that I am often asked. For most journalists, the idea of readers critiquing their work in public beneath their story is more than a little confronting. Then the question of when, if ever, they should respond becomes even more difficult. Yes, the comments beneath online news stories can include ridiculous, vulgar and aggressive comments – that aren’t worth your time. But through careful management and engagement of reader discussion by the journalist, a higher quality debate can be encouraged. That’s not to say that you will completely eliminate the ‘crazies’ (my term for those ‘trolls’ or nasty individuals who seem to have found a natural habitat online), but you can minimize them and that should be your goal.

Here are my tips for wading into the comment fray.

Join the discussion when:

  1. A reader asks you a question

This one is important, as nothing is more dismissive than a journalist that writes a story and then doesn’t even bother to respond to a reasonable question. Yes, you probably have another five stories to write that day, but taking the time to acknowledge your reader’s question and respond is a great way to ensure they keep reading your work. And you the saying about a journalist without an audience … so enough said.

2.  Acknowledge a ‘quality’ contribution

We want to minimize the ‘crazies’ and encourage high quality debate right? Well reward those who are making a significant contribution. If a reader gives you some further information on the story or points to other examples that may be relevant, thank them, join a discussion with them. Ben Eltham at New Matilda does this incredibly well. He responds to questions and comments and also reminds commenters of the site’s policy following this story.

3.   Correct misinformation

It is important to correct misinformation and the journalist who wrote the story is best placed to do that. Quite often a simply (and courteous, don’t sink to the level of the ‘crazies’) explanation or correction can stop a discussion denigrating into something completely wrong and off topic. Check out how APN journalist Bill Hoffman does this on this story published on the Sunshine Coast Daily.

Don’t join the discussion to:

  1. Tell the ‘crazies’ what you really think of them

It can be really tempting to tell that ‘crazy’ who has used 200 words to remark on your hair, for example, just what you think about them. But you should never, ever enter the crazy fray. Remember that the majority of your readers recognise a ‘crazy’ just as easily as you do. By responding to them you are only giving them legitimacy. If you absolutely must respond, then do so courteously by correcting factual misinfomation (NOT pointing out that in fact you paid $200 to a very well respected stylist to get your fantastic hairdo) or pointing out the website commenting policy.

2.   Respond to every comment

This really shouldn’t be a problem, because let’s be honest who has time for this anyway. But it is worth remembering that by responding to one ‘quality’ commenter you are actually showing that you acknowledge all the commenters. So carefully selecting which comments to respond to will serve you in the long run.

By keeping in mind these principles when you are dealing with reader comments, you are working towards creating a space where more ‘quality’ commenters might join in. Yes, you won’t completely eliminate the ‘crazies’, but you will take some steps to ensuring a dynamic and vibrant community is built around your website. And at the end of the day that’s the goal for all online news media, hoping to monetise their content.


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