Six Things You Can Learn From the Dark Underbelly of Your Site — a.k.a. The Comments Section

By on June 3, 2014

This is one of a series of blog posts from the third ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. Applications are open to apply for this year’s fellowship until June 6. Fellow Kyle Stokes is the youth & education reporter at NPR member station KPLU in Seattle.

Seattle's famous troll — a statue under a bridge in the Fremont neighborhood — is considerably kinder than most internet trolls. (Kyle Stokes)

The reputation of the comments section as an “infamously troll-ridden Wild West of abuse, ignorance and spam” is alive and well. Popular Science shut down its comment sections. The Chicago Sun-Times did the same while it revamps the section. Vox launched without a comments featureQuartz and The Dish haven’t bothered with them, either. Even YouTube is cracking down on its commenters, some of whom have earned their reputations as the biggest bullies of the internet’s schoolyard.

Yes, the worst comments are vile and indefensible; yes, the meanest offenders add little to the public discourse. “The easiest thing in the world for us to do would be to excise the comments section … altogether,” wrote Matt Thompson on NPR’s Code Switch blog this week. “But at its best, our comments section makes our work better, our journalism stronger, and Code Switch more valuable for its users.”

Hear, hear. Maybe in the near future our sites will end up looking more like Quartz or Vox or PopSci‘s. We ought to discard the few bad apples, of course, but we should take care not to throw out the good ones along with them — because the good ones have something to teach us. After all, through your comments section you might learn a few things:

Your audience will make its expectations known

“Mr. Stokes?” commenter Mouse Rat asked me on the education blog I wrote, StateImpact Indiana. “Can you get anyone at the [Department of Education] to talk to you about their decision-making process, to explain their actions during this mess?” By “this mess,” the commenter is referring to a statewide crash in Indiana’s standardized testing system — a story that impacted almost everyone in our core audiences. They all had questions, as did my reporting partner and I. Their feedback helped us determine which questions to answer first.

Your audience will write posts for you

Comments are content,” after all. We made a habit of curating the best comments in a semi-regular feature called Mailbag. Sometimes we did so to stir the pot. Other times we did so to highlight the best of an ongoing conversation taking place right under our noses.

Your audience will help you keep an ear to the ground

In 2012, anyone who was anyone in Indiana politics assumed the well-funded incumbent for the state’s highest elected education post, superintendent of public instruction, was going to win re-election and win big. It was hard to believe the challenger, Glenda Ritz, would pose any electoral threat. Our commenters overwhelmingly left pro-Ritz remarks. They weren’t a representative sample of the electorate by any stretch. But the comments foretold what would become the electoral earthquake of Indiana’s 2012 elections: Ritz won, propelled by activism from some of the same people who were active in our comments section. Most of the actual networking was happening on Facebook and in person, but our comments provided a window into their world.

Your audience will even occasionally predict the future

Call it the comment section ouija board. After Ritz’s victory, her political opponents sought ways to marginalize her or even strip her of power. Our commenters saw it coming. On the night of Ritz’s election, a commenter raised this possibility on one of our posts. The “legislature could abolish the office as an elected position at [the] end of her first term,” this person wrote. We aren’t in the business of looking into crystal balls, but tapping into the predictions of your commenters can greatly inform your reporting — because every so often, they’re right.

Your audience will set you straight

Following Ritz’s victory, we analyzed how her supporters had convinced others to vote for such a political unknown. But one commenter quibbled with our characterization of how Ritz’s supporters had campaigned — and made valid points. We can’t have a discussion over wording, phrasing and nuance over email or social media with our audience like we can in the comments section.

Your audience will surprise you

By a three-to-one margin, we got more comments from parents and teachers skeptical of the direction lawmakers were driving Indiana’s education policy; they tended to support Ritz. But commenters were not absolute in their support, expressing skepticism over Ritz’s decisions to sue a board of education policymakers. “She’s the one who is going to look like the villain here,” wrote commenter karynb9, a steadfast Ritz supporter. Their comments reminded us that our audience, while they have their biases and predilections, isn’t monolithic or blindly loyal.

Fellow Kyle Stokes is the youth & education reporter at NPR member station KPLU in Seattle. He spent two-and-a-half years reporting on education for StateImpact Indiana, a collaboration of WFIU and Indiana Public Broadcasting.