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‘Coral Project’ hopes to clean up commenting mess

World News Publishing Focus

World News Publishing Focus
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‘Coral Project’ hopes to clean up commenting mess

If you have spent more than five minutes on any news organisation’s comments section, you’ll have noticed that they often play host to particularly vile comments.

It is because of this that there is an increasing trend to dispose of comment boards and outsource the problem to social media (not that these are any healthier, as Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo recently confessed). Reuters, Popular Science, Bloomberg, the Las Vegas Review-Journal (temporarily), and the Chicago Sun-Times are all members of the club which have grown tired of dealing with virulent comments.

But the Coral Project aims to bring relief to the under-resourced and overwhelmed newsrooms, which do not have the time to sift through and moderate incredible numbers of comments. 

Greg Barber, who is the lead on the initiative for The Washington Post, as well as their Director of Digital News Projects, says it began after people at The Washington Post and The New York Times spoke with each other and realised they faced similar issues in their comment boards. As they reached out to more publishers, “We realised that those problems are pretty ubiquitous,” says Barber.

“We all have a lot in common regardless of size, regardless of whether the news organisation began as print or broadcast or as digital first. A lot of the concerns are similar.”

The system therefore will be designed to work for any publisher, regardless of their size, with a “hyper-flexible” open-source design that will allow it to be tailored to each organisation’s needs. 

“What we want to do is make it easier programmatically to find those contributors who offer up thoughtful responses to things,” says Barber, “[We want to] give publishers the tools to ask the kinds of questions they want to ask, and highlight the best, most thoughtful responses from their audiences.”

Barber suggests that one way of achieving this is by creating an ‘identity layer’ which will reach across organisations, stratifying users by levels of trust. Barber describes it as: “an easy way for contributors to manage their identities across platforms, across publishers. Sort of an ability to manage the sorts of permissions that news organisations have, so on the user side: ‘What kind of a contributor do I want to be? Where do I want to contribute? What kind of personal data do I want to give up?’”

He says that it is these tools which give contributors something to build towards that have made social networks like Facebook and Twitter so successful.

“With Twitter, what people are able to do is build up identity, build up expertise, build up a - persona sounds strange - but build themselves up in a way that can indicate to other users: ‘Hey, this is what I’m interested in, this is what I know about, this is what I have expertise in.’

“Currently what’s available for news organisations doesn’t really allow that,” says Barber.

However, Dr Fiona Martin, who is a researcher of online commenting at the University of Sydney in Australia, says stratifying users can create a class system which disadvantages casual or one-off users. “Automated ranking tools and verified commenter systems create class systems, [and] 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 told the World Editors Forum last year.

“There isn’t going to be a silver bullet out of this,” says Barber, “There isn’t going to be the software piece that, you know: ‘Check! Comments are taken care for us.’”

“There is always going to be a manual component to this, basically by necessity, because what we’re looking to do is allow publishers to create connections with their audiences, and those connections are human, they’re personal.”

When The Las Vegas Review-Journal temporarily shut down their comment boards, they posted an article on Medium in which they asked: ‘How do we foster a sense of community and encourage people to express themselves, without simply providing a way to amplify hateful and often threatening remarks?’ 

They had no easy answer, and neither does Barber, but he says part of it is in asking the right questions, and in making sure users understand “what we want as a news organisation, as far as the boards that we open, and then participating and hoping to guide that conversation.”

One community which Barber says exemplify this are the ‘weather watchers’ on The Washington Post’s weather blog, the Capital Weather Gang. To earn a ‘weather watcher’ badge as a contributor, Barber says users have to attend in-person training sessions run by the blog’s meteorologists, “And so what then happens is that you create community in the sense that not only have you talked to these people online, you’ve put faces to names. It’s a real humanising thing.”

“It’s not just that ‘you have to meet people in person in order to create community,’ but it is in making those kinds of connections - deepening the experience, by allowing the contributors to express more of themselves, to become more, sort of a fuller self in the way that they contribute.”

He also says it is this kind of community which news organisations risk losing by turning off their comment sections. In a talk at news:rewired, the Guardian’s Executive Editor of Digital Aron Pilhofer said: “Any site that moves away from comments is a plus for sites like ours. Readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.”

“I’d agree with that. You lose the voice of your reader, and you lose a really important input,” says Barber. “But leave it to Aron Pilhofer to have a better quote than mine.”

“Quality comments, and you could expand this beyond comment boards to user-generated content of all kinds, be it photos or video, any kind of scenario where news organisations are getting information in directly from users, but quality begets more quality, says Barber.

“When publishers first started getting on the internet, one of the things that we saw then was all of the potential for the internet to really turbocharge that conversation, and you can see with some of the conversation that’s gone on around comments lately that a lot of news organisations don’t think that we’ve really reached that potential, and I think that’s right.” 

“One of the things that we want to try to do is make it easier for news organisations to make changes and try to reach that potential by fostering more thoughtful conversations.”

Greg Barber will be appearing at:

Photo courtesy of Death to Stock.

Correction: The original article stated Greg Barber was the project leader of the Coral Project. He is rather The Washington Post's lead for the Coral Project.


Jake Evans


2015-02-18 13:47

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