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July 5, 2018

Experiment shows that expert comments can increase news credibility 

Illustration by Melinda Szekeres

By Jessica Mahone, Democracy Fund Public Square Research Associate

Conversations between academic research and local newsrooms are often siloed. Interesting and useful findings from research are trapped in long papers that those in local newsrooms may not know about or have time to sift through. This series, Research Roundup, highlights some key findings from recent research and what they could mean for those working in local news.  

In this installment of Research Roundup, we’re featuring research on how online comments can influence how people assess the credibility of news content and how online commenters view the role of journalists in online discussions.  

Do you have a project or paper that the audience of the Local News Lab would be interested in? Is there something that you want to know more about from local newsrelated research? Let us know at localnewslab@democracyfund.org. 

Comments and journalists

Comment sections are one of the most common ways audiences engage with news content, changing the dynamics of the relationship between journalists and their audiences. However, the uncivil behavior frequently associated with comment sections has important implications for both journalists and the content they produce. The articles featured below are behind a paywall but can often be accessed by contacting the authors directly. 

(Important note for those that want more specific details — some identifying information, such as the names of news organizations or locations, are not specified in the papers due to practices to ensure that peer review processes remain blind. The goal is to ensure that reviewers cannot identify authors and will instead judge works based on their quality, rather than who the authors are.) 

Experts in the comments can increase credibility of news articles to readers 

“Social credibility online: The role of online comments in assessing news article credibility,” Newspaper Research Journal, Ivanka Pjesivac (University of Georgia), Nicholas Geidner (University of Tennessee), Jaclyn Cameron (Independent Researcher), March 2018  

Using a survey experiment of 196 participants, the authors looked at the influence of expertise and tone in comments on the credibility assessments of a news article about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The authors found: 

  • Comments from experts increased the credibility of the news article to participants. 
  • How frequently someone consumes news affects the influence of expert comments on credibility assessments of the news article. Frequent news consumers saw the news article as more credible when accompanying comments were from experts. Infrequent news consumers saw the news article as more credible when associated comments were not from experts.  
  • The positivity or negativity of comments did not influence how credible readers rated the article, regardless of their prior attitudes on the issue of GMOs. 

While limited in scope, this study suggests that comment sections can be an opportunity for experts to enhance audience understanding of content. Collaborating with experts to provide guided conversations about complex issues is one way newsrooms can use comment sections to help audiences further engage content.    

Commenters want transparency from news organizations on comment policies 

“How commenters use online forums as spaces for journalism’s boundary work,” Newspaper Research Journal, J. David Wolfgang (Colorado State University), March 2018 

Digital technologies, including online commenting forums, have changed the boundaries of who might be considered a journalist. However, it’s not clear how audiences themselves view the boundary between journalists and commenters in online forums. Through a textual analysis of 8,908 comments from 103 articles about online commenting from January 1, 2011, to December 31, 2015, the author assessed commenters attitudes about their own role in defining journalism’s boundaries, as well as their opinions on the role of journalists in public discussions. He found: 

  • Commenters see online forums as a separate production space for audiences to reinterpret facts and events themselves and for journalists to turn over power. In particular, commenters view moderation of comments by professional journalists as a form of censorship that limits a free and real exchange of ideas. 
  • Commenters want transparency about moderation policies and open communication about the removal of comments. They said moderation should be focused on the quality of conversation, emphasizing civility, respect, and staying on topic. 
  • Some commenters see journalists as gatekeepers that should apply tougher, even professional journalistic standards, to online forums to ensure civility in guided, quality conversations.  

Although a group of commenters believe journalists could extend their role as gatekeepers to comment sections, most commenters in this study wanted a space where journalists play a small but predictable role in making sure that comments sections are open exchanges of ideas. Previous research from the Center for Media Engagement (formerly the Engaging News Project) indicates that journalist participation in comment threads can reduce incivility in comment sections. And there are tools, such as Coral Project’s Talk platform, that help journalists engage with commenters and keep the space civil. (Note: The Center for Media Engagement and Coral Project are Democracy Fund grantees.) For more research and resources on commenting, visit The Coral Project’s Guides for Journalists. These findings also reflect the need for transparency to build trust between communities and journalists, which is an element of The Trust Project. 

 Jessica Mahone is the Research Associate for the Public Square program at Democracy Fund. Previously, she was a researcher with the News Measures Research Project at Duke University and a temporary Research Associate in journalism at Pew Research Center. Her research interests are varied but center around local news, civic engagement, and diversity in media.