Why you should moderate comments: Editors share their advice


Reprinted from GateHouse Newsroom

If you ask any editor in a newsroom what one of their biggest issues is, chances are online comments would be toward the top of the list.

Between a Facebook page and a newspaper.com site, readers can leave hundreds of comments a day. And moderating them can take time. The comments themselves can also descend into name calling or unnecessary political debates.

A lot of news website have abandoned comments altogether, with the most recent high-profile organization being NPR. With many in the industry moving on, why keep using comments on your website? Is it worth your time?

While comments may take up valuable time to moderate in a newsroom, studies have shown that commenters are more civil to each other when a staff person is moderating and responding.

One study from the Engaging News Project found that uncivil comments were reduced when the TV station participating in the study had either a reporter or another staff member respond.

An even larger study conducted by ENP and the Coral Project involving 20 newsrooms found that a majority of readers wanted things like questions answered or factual points clarified.

At GateHouse Media, we still have comment sections on our websites and encourage editors to moderate them.

Here is some advice for editors who spend time interacting with readers in the comment section:

  • Kent Bush, publisher of the Shawnee News-Star, wrote in an email that moderating comments can reduce the number of comments received, but what comments are posted tend to be more respectful. Bush removes comments from the Facebook page when posters resort to name calling, threats or make false statements. He also will message a poster privately to explain why a comment is removed.
  • Alan Shaw, the analytics and engagement lead producer for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, tries to respond to all legitimate questions, or loop in a reporter to answer them. He has also found that temporary bans are an effective way to let posters cool down a bit. "Some of those we've banned complain that I'm ruining the comments, but my goal is to make it a more civil place where people can weigh in without fear of being attacked," Shaw wrote in an email.
  • Ron Sylvester, the editor of the Hutchinson News, wrote in an email that he also tries to respond when readers make statements about a news story that are inaccurate, or if they gossip about the publication. If our readers ask us questions in the comments and we don't respond, what does that say about our relationship with our readers? Comments on the site is the one place that belongs to the readers. And if they are asking questions or offering suggestions, it's important to respond to them. He also follows the same advice he does for writing stories: "Just like any other form of writing, don't post the first thing that comes to mind. Revise it. Schedule it for later, if you need to, so you have time to make more revisions later," Sylvester wrote.

If you're overwhelmed with how to moderate, keep a few basic rules in mind:

  • Promote the good.
  • Ban or delete the bad.
  • Ignore the rest.

The most important thing you can do in comment moderation is to let your community of readers know that you are watching and that you care about what they have to say.

Penny Riordan manages digital content partnerships for GateHouse Media. She works out of the Center for News and Design in Austin, Texas. Prior to joining the company, she worked at Patch.com for four years, where she led social media, blogging and UGC efforts for the company. She also launched a Patch site in Maryland. Riordan also has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Maryland and Connecticut.

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