Acknowledging emotions in comment sections reflects better on news organisations

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA


Though it is often an expected part of the job, many journalists are hesitant to get involved in comment sections. Interacting with the comments can have many benefits — and there are several discussion tactics shown to encourage quality conversation among commenters. Previous Center for Media Engagement research suggests, however, that journalists often don’t get training on what to say.

To better understand how journalists should respond to commenters, the Center for Media Engagement tested two types of responses to comments on a Facebook news post.

The study

Participants in the experiment were shown a mock comment discussion under a Facebook post that appeared to be from a news outlet. The topics of the posts varied: Participants saw either a post about immigration or about the #MeToo movement. Responses to the comment discussions were tested in both the United States and Germany to see how they worked across different cultures.

The first type of response acknowledged commenters’ emotions by saying, “I recognise that you’re angry, but let’s try to keep an open mind.” The second response dismissed the commenters’ emotions by telling them, “Don’t get bent out of shape.”

Participants were then asked how they felt about the way the discussion was handled as well as how they felt about the news outlet.

This example from a Facebook post shows how to acknowledge commenters’ emotions.
This example from a Facebook post shows how to acknowledge commenters’ emotions.

The results

Acknowledging the emotions of the commenter gave people a more positive impression of the way the comment thread was handled and a more positive impression of the news outlet in general. This was true whether the response came from a journalist or from another commenter. It also held up regardless the topic of discussion.

How journalists can apply the findings

The results of the study suggest that, when getting involved in the comments, journalists should try to acknowledge commenters’ emotions rather than dismiss them. This strategy also holds up when trying to redirect behaviour.

Though this approach is shown to be effective, it should not be used when faced with hate speech or abuse. In that case, we recommend removing the comments.

The full report can be found here.

About Katalina Deaven

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