By Robin Blom (@), Serena Carpenter (
@dr_serena), Brian J. Bowe ( @brianjbowe), and Ryan Lange (@)
Read any comment section about a political topic on the website of a major news outlet, nowadays, and you’ll likely end up in a raging debate. Regardless of whether you agree with some of the positions, one thing is shared by many of those commenters: they show a lot of passion!
For our study, we were interested in looking at comment sections at relatively smaller outlets than the L.A. Times, Huffington Post, and Fox News. We studied 2,237 reactions on editorials and letters-to-the-editor for 15 U.S. daily newspapers ranging from Casper, Wyoming, to Lakeland, Florida, and from Norwich, Connecticut, to Vallejo, California. We were wondering if the comments on the newspaper websites were dominated by a small group of users and whether there were (positive and negative) consequences to such dominance.
One of the most frequent users—one with the nickname angry on the website of The Tennessean —posted 46 times in the constructed week that was studied a few years ago. To put that in perspective, with that number of replies he or she would be on pace for 2,392 comments per year. Another 12 forums users, from different newspapers, commented more than 20 times (which corresponds to more than 1000 reactions per year). In fact, together with angry, they were responsible for 15.2% of all responses, while representing a mere 1.6% of all contributors within this study.
But what about their behavior in comparison to others?
Online discussions are considered healthy and functioning when they are civil and informational. This study indicates that an overwhelming majority of the participants avoid uncivil language and character attacks, but at the same time comments that provide supplementary information were relatively sparse. When frequent and infrequent posters were compared, there was not much of a difference in the use of uncivil language, although frequent posters were slightly more likely to engage other comment posters in an uncivil manner. Additionally, frequent posters were less likely to share information.
Newspapers have professional and financial reasons for attracting frequent posters because of the media organizations’ desire to increase page views. Yet the frequent posters observed in this study did not foster an environment in which they welcome meaningful engagement from other people. Therefore, one of the implications of this research is that news organizations may not want to cultivate a small group of people who post often, because the frequent contributors observed in this study attacked other users more often. Instead, newspapers may want to look for a way to make it more appealing for (current) infrequent posters to become more engaged in online discussions.
The challenge of news organizations is to identify people or experts who can nourish an environment that represents the public necessity of truth and understanding. Providing information requires more knowledge and effort on the part of participants. To encourage such contributions, posters could be rewarded through public acknowledgments awarded by a news organization that hosts a forum or by other posters through virtual badges (or other visual markers).