Conflict in the comment section can hurt a news site’s credibility

by | Feb 7, 2019 | Blog, What We're Reading

Negative comments can be more than simply annoying — they can also damage an entire news site’s credibility. A new UT Austin study suggests journalists should ensure the discussions in their comment sections are civil in order to retain new readers and keep their trust.

Attacks in the Comment Sections: What it Means for News Sites
University of Texas at Austin Center for Media Engagement
By Ori Tenenboim, Gina Masullo Chen and Shuning Lu
Jan. 24, 2019

Previous research has established that uncivil comments can damage a person’s perception of a blog post or news story. But can bad behavior in the comment section make people doubt the validity of the entire website?

Yes, according to the Center for Media Engagement’s new study, which examines how uncivil comments affect the way readers perceive a news site. While many journalists are encouraged to write the first comment on an article, in hopes of setting a positive tone, the researchers found that seeing civil comments first doesn’t matter.

Researchers with the University of Texas at Austin discovered the overall tone of comment threads is more memorable than the tone of the first few comments: “In fact, people’s perception of the site was almost the same whether they saw civil comments or uncivil comments first.”

The research suggests that news organizations should focus on improving overall tone of comments posted on their news stories.

Key Numbers

  • The researchers based their findings on two online experiments, totaling 1,576 people.
  • Their research showed audience members can handle some incivility, as long as it doesn’t dominate the whole comment stream. But when at least 75 percent of the comments are uncivil, perceptions of the site and the comment section were less favorable.

Study Details

  • The experiments contained real comments, which were collected from news sites. They were then edited to include “markers of incivility — profanity, name-calling, and words in all capital letters to indicate yelling.”
  • In order to ensure the comments could be defined as uncivil, 1,146 people unrelated to the experiments rated how uncivil the comments were.
  • Participants for the first experiment came from’s Mechanical Turk, who read the two stories, each of which had four comments on each story. The comment sections were either all civil, all uncivil, or a mix of both.
  • The second experiment involved participants who were recruited from Research Now SSI, an online survey panel, “to create a sample more representative of the demographics of the U.S. Internet population.”