You managed to build and implement the moderation procedure, you managed to get (most of) your fellow journalists in the newsroom on board and even had a consistent period in which you might have tried some experiments in the comments section to see what works best for your needs and your readers and you even had some time to do some preliminary analyses. Amazing! Although we know it wasn’t easy, you did it! But the work doesn’t stop here.

Going back and talking to your audience is key in staying true to your commitment and to reaching your goals with the moderation procedure. It is also helpful in terms of feedback that you can count on when further developing the moderation. Consistency and transparency were core values to your initial proposition to the audience and this can be reinforced with the help of surveys and focus groups (either face to face or online ones) to which loyal readers might be happy to participate in (with minor incentives like free subscriptions and the chance to talk to some of the journalists in the newsroom).

These kinds of actions have a double role, to actually make good on the promise of interaction and engagement, as well as to gather important feedback on the impact of the moderation, beyond analytics. It is also a way to get to the core of your most engaged commenters, those that spend more time with your content, are more knowledgeable about it and more likely to be turned into “helpers” within the online community (think giving them special privileges, encouraging them to lead discussions etc. just as Salon tried to do with their online community, instead of just closing down the comments section altogether). Ultimately, they could be those that shape your community and help new commenters adapt and understand the rules of the game faster. Some publications go as far as publishing pieces about their top commenters and showcasing their activity on the website as well as offer a glimpse into their lives, like The Guardian recently did with their “best below-the-line commenters.”

We used surveys for two of the websites in the project first and then doubled that with online focus groups both of which were targeted at readers that had commented at least once on our websites since the moderation had been implemented. It suited the project best to have these towards the end of the project and a year after the supervised moderation started, as feedback and perceptions of the whole process were important to us. But these kinds of measures can be applied even earlier with a specific need in mind, for example to see their general media consumption habits or their specific interest on your website more specifically, or just to test their perception of online comments.

What we did was reach out via email to those users that had posted at least one comment on either GSP.ro or Tolo.ro and asked them to complete a short survey with the promise of complete anonymity and use of their aggregated answers for research purposes only. We also wanted to establish a first connection to them and pave the way for further interactions (in the form of the online focus groups). Plus, these were loyal consumers of both websites (somewhat already engaged), which meant a higher chance for them to answer our call.

It is also worth mentioning the different nature of the two websites used for these user experiments. While, GSP.ro is one of the larges sports websites in the country, with numerous new articles published everyday on mainly sports related subjects, Tolo.ro is a public affairs blog, owned by on of the most reputed investigative journalists in the country and editor-in-chief of Gazeta Sporturilor (GSP.ro is the online presence of the daily newspaper), with a much lower frequency rate for publishing articles. The two do have some common readers, which we accounted for, in the users surveys, but most of their target audience is different.

For good measure we will mention the stats related to the questions we used in our surveys of the users so as to provide comparisons.

Here are a couple of questions that you might like to use in a future survey of your users and what results they elicited when we tried them in ours.

One could start the line of questions with some related to the users’ media consumption habits, like:

  • How often do you visit [our] website?(every day / a few times a week / once a week / a few times a month / once a month / once every few months)
  • When you read online articles what subjects interest you the most? – They could have a list to choose from, which may include: national politics/public affaires in the country, local news, international news (politics in other countries), health and medicine, religion and spirituality, music and arts, sports, science, technology, economics/business/finances, lifestyle.
  • What other news websites do you read?

Another batch of questions could focus on their comments related habits. The first obvious questions would interrogate how often they read the commentsand how often they comment (every day / a few times a week / once a week / a few times a month / once a month / once every few months or whatever makes sense to your website, depending also on how frequent you publish new content on the website) and for what reason they do it. The list of possible answers to the latter questions could include but is not limited to the following options (we gave 16 options and asked them to thick as many as 5):

  • To express an opinion or an emotion
  • To add information
  • To correct errors or misinformation
  • To participate in the debate/discuss with others
  • To educate others
  • To praise other people and their actions
  • To share an experience
  • To signal missing information
  • To bring balance in the discussion
  • To ask questions
  • To add humor to the discussion
  • To be part of the community
  • To show compassion towards others
  • To convince others
  • To observe how others react
  • Other reasons. Please detail your choice ____________________

Then, one could choose to go more in depth with surveying their habits related to comments with a couple of questions like:“Do you read the comments on the website?” If the answer is “yes (at least occasionally)” one could follow up with questions related to frequency and motivation, like: “How often do you read the comments posted by other readers on the website?” and “What motivates you to read the comments on the website?” For the latter we came up with 8 possible answers out of which they were instructed to choose up to 5 answers:

  • To learn about other people’s opinions
  • To learn more about the article / topic
  • To take part in the debate/discussion with others
  • To learn about other people’s experiences
  • To be part of the community
  • To have fun/amuse myself
  • To see how my opinion fares against the others
  • Other reasons. Please detail your choice ____________________

If the answer to the initial question related to whether they read the comments is “no (never)” it may also be followed with one that digs a bit further into the reasons for not doing that: “We would like to know why you don’t read the comments on the website. You may choose up to 5 options.” These are the ones that we came up with, but one could have different statements in order to possibly test features in the comment section or hunches of why people might be put off from commenting depending on the experience so far:

  • Comments are combative
  • Commenters are not well informed
  • Commenters are aggressive and uncivil
  • Comments are off topic
  • Comments are predictable
  • The comment section has an unpleasant design
  • Not enough comments
  • Too many comments
  • I’m not interested at all in them
  • Other reasons. Please detail your choice ____________________

Some of these options mentioned above (those in bold) might also be used for another follow up question for those that answered “yes (at least occasionally)”, like “Is there something that bothers you in the comment section on the website? Please tick the options the suit you.”

Another batch of questions could focus on the users’ perception of comments, by asking them to rate a series of statements on a scale from 0 to 10 (where 0=completely disagree, 5=neither agree nor disagree, 10=completely agree), like these:

  • Online publishers can and should impose rules of behavior in the comment sections
  • Comments are inevitably flooded by racist, violent/brutal and intolerant language
  • It’s a good thing for authors and moderators to actively participate in the comment section
  • The tone and content of articles influence the tone and content of comments
  • People are more willing to discuss in a civil manner if a journalist is involved in the debate
  • It’s a good thing that authors or moderators highlight quality comments

Or have a go at their beliefs related to online anonymity. One question could ask them to pick the statement they consider most important:

  • When people comment anonymously they can express ideas they would other wise be afraid toWhen people comment anonymously they can express ideas they would other wise be afraid to
  • Requiring commenters to use their real names might expose them to risks
  • Anonymity promotes a more lively and passionate debate
  • The possibility to comment anonymously increases the lack of respect
  • The requirement that commenters use their real names to comment generates better conversations

One could also ask them if they ever read the rules of commenting on the website and whether they agree or disagree with them. And then move on to surveying their perceptions of the site’s involvement and responsibility.

 

In this respect, one question could ask them directly how they think the comments should be dealt with, bearing in mind the following possible answers to chose from (people should be instructed to choose the one they feel closest to):

  • Comments should be allowed without any restrictions
  • Comments should not be allowed at all
  • Comments should not be allowed at all on the website and moved to the social media channels
  • Comments should be allowed but moderated

And then go to more specific questions related to the implementation of the moderation on your website to see the effects on the readers. One could present a series of statements to be evaluated on a scale from 0 to 10 (where 0=completely disagree, 5=neither agree nor disagree, 10=completely agree), like these:

  • The website moderates too much
  • The website moderates too little
  • Moderation lead to a diminished number of vulgar, aggressive or intolerant comments
  • Moderators act correctly and consistently
  • The website censors commenters with different opinions
  • The website should block some of the commenters

The design of the survey should follow your goals and be matched with your previous efforts to set up and implement the moderation procedure. Whichever way you choose to go, the results will be important, as well as the mere fact of reaching out and involving your audience in the process, opening up a new way of communicating with them and not only at them.

Just over three quarters of respondents on both sites agreed that the presence of a journalist in the comment section makes the discussion more civil.

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2019-09-03T08:32:24+00:00
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