News comment sections give readers opportunities to interact, discuss stories, and learn from each other. They can also be a valuable asset for journalists — allowing them to engage with readers and identify stories that are important to the community.
However, online conversations can quickly turn hostile, which can lead some newsrooms to consider turning off comments as a way to curb the negativity. After all, past research has shown that incivility in the comment section can negatively affect the way readers view the journalism, and even the news organisation as a whole.
Until now, newsrooms couldn’t be sure how the decision to turn off comments would affect their organisation and their users. To help newsrooms better understand the value of comment sections, the Center for Media Engagement partnered with 24 Gannett-owned newsrooms and Coral by Vox Media on a ground-breaking study that put comments to the test. The study also considered whether the commenting platform chosen by newsrooms affects the user experience.
For this study, participating newsrooms did one of the following:
- Turned off comments on their site.
- Continued using the Facebook commenting system.
- Switched to Coral’s commenting system, which required registration.
- Switched to Coral’s commenting system and only allowed subscribers to comment.
Effects on the user experience
Though most people didn’t notice changes to the comment section, they were more likely to take note on the sites that switched to Coral for Registrants. On sites that turned comments off completely, people who noticed the change thought it made the experience worse.
Making changes to the comment section also affected the types of comments people left. In general, switching to Coral led to fewer toxic comments. Commenters on sites with Coral, however, said they felt more disconnected to the other commenters.
One possible explanation for this feeling is that the switch to Coral led to users seeing new screen names for fellow commenters, as opposed to the Facebook profile names and photos used by the Facebook commenting platform. The change may have contributed to a sense of disconnect as people adjusted to the new profiles.
Users on sites where comments were turned off spent less time on the site than the users on sites that continued with the Facebook commenting platform. To see if people would turn to social media in the absence of the comment section, the study tracked comments on news organisations’ Facebook pages. The number of comments on Facebook stayed about the same whether news site comments were on or off.
The study also considered how journalists at participating newsrooms felt about the changes. Reactions were generally positive for newsrooms that made the switch to Coral. Echoing the site findings on toxicity, journalists reported that comments seemed more civil on sites using Coral. For Coral for Registrants, in particular, journalists rated the comments as more valuable than when they had used the Facebook commenting platform.
The bottom line
This study shows that comment sections have proven value for newsrooms. Though it may be tempting to turn them off when conversations turn argumentative or when the task of moderating becomes a burden, the decision could end up cutting down on the time people spend on site and could make the experience worse for users.
It should also be considered that the platform newsrooms choose for comments can make a big difference — for users and newsrooms alike.