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Editors want people to speak up. But politely, please

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World News Publishing Focus
Your Guide to the Changing Media Landscape

Editors want people to speak up. But politely, please

According to the report, which was based on a survey of 101 editors, the vast majority support online commenting; with over 70% of editors saying they are unlikely to ban comments and another 11% saying that comments would never be banned.

Most editors, however, want to see improvement in the quality of the online discussions. They were “too often negative, off the topic, uninformed and lacking civility,” the Associated Press Media Editors reported.

Meanwhile, a recent study of comments on the Arizona Daily Star by Kevin Coe, Kate Kenski and Stephen Rains from The Universities of Utah and Arizona, found that more than one in five comments contained unfriendly or uncivil content. The most common style of offensive remark, appearing in 14% of all comments, was the playground classic of name-calling.

According to the study, which analysed a pool of over 6400 comments on the local news site, it was local opinion writers who raised the ire of commenters the most, while local news reporters enjoyed the most civil discussions in the comment threads on their articles. This may be instructive research for those interested in cultivating more civil conversations on comment boards - the straighter the reporting, the less likely it is to attract abusive comments.

Superusers and serial offenders

Several editors in the APME report were also critical of the way that conversations were frequently dominated by a small number of users.

In many cases, these users are known as ‘super-users;’ commenters given prominence as a result of automatic ranking systems. These ranking systems are often based on the number of comments made.

Dr. Fiona Martin, a researcher who studies online comments on news articles at the University of Sydney, told the World Editors Forum earlier this year, “I can see the appeal of automation to help identify ‘superusers.’ The problem is automated ranking tools and verified commenter systems create class systems. They disadvantage one-off and casual users.“

“If the rules publishers introduce for users to be given greater visibility are not transparent, then those rules will only cause anger and, potentially, disengagement," she said.

Emerging best practice in online comment moderation

To foster better practice in managing online news conversations, WAN-IFRA has published Online comment moderation: emerging best practices. The report suggests publishers incorporate strong guidelines for commenters. Ideally they would:

  • Describe the kind of environment the publication hopes to create and the kind of discussions it hopes to have
  • Clearly define hate speech, defamation, libel etc.
  • Promote opportunities for counter-speech
  • Encourage commenters to substantiate their opinions with facts
  • Remind commenters that they should be discussing the issue rather than attacking each other

WAN-IFRA also recommends, “hiring staff to work solely on comment threads and user generated content.” However the APME report found that only 12% of the editors and their publications had comment monitors operating 24 hours, every day of the week.

Anonymity versus open identification

Editors are split when it comes to anonymous posting. Fifty four percent of editors surveyed by APME don't allow anonymous commenting, while several editors only extend commenting privileges to subscribers.

For many editors, the solution lies in employing a comment-hosting service, the most popular of which is Facebook, with 61% of the editors identifying the platform. 

Currently, Mozilla Firefox, in partnership with Washington Post and The New York Times, is working to design a system to improve online commenting culture. It hopes to shine a light on relevant input, while also simplifying the commenting process, making it easier for commenters and journalists to interact.

Comment moderation will be a theme of discussion at October’s Newsroom Summit, to be staged by the World Editors Forum in Amsterdam.

The WAN-IFRA publication, ‘Online comment moderation: emerging best practices,’ is available free of charge to both WAN-IFRA members and non-members. If interested, the report can be ordered here.

Photo credit; Sarah Scicluna, Flickr/Creative Commons


Lucy Dean


2014-07-31 16:28

Author information

The World Editors Forum is the organisation within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (, launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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