On NRKbeta’s article comments

Kategorier: English-articles & NRKbeta

Translated from the original article in Norwegian: and back dated to the same publishing date.

A while ago, I was approached with a handful of questions about the comments here at NRKbeta, what thoughts I had, and how we handle comments.

foto av NRKbetas kommentarfelt

Camilla Haga is doing a bachelor’s degree in media sciences at Oslo University, and is now in her final semester. The topic the students have been given, is social media’s impact on daily journalism. The group’s overarching topic is democracy, and she’s chosen to write a report on freedom of speech in online comments. Part of what’s discussed might be interesting for others, so we have – in understanding with Camilla – chosen to share the interview with you. Afterwards I’ve beefed it up with links to relevant articles throughout the text.

How does NRKbeta manage to maintain a focused debate in its online comments?

By being present, by reading every comment, giving feedback, and – when we need to react – by responding quickly and politely. Over time we’ve – together with our readership – managed to build a good and healthy culture for debate. A comments culture is self amplifying. If people see a good comments culture, they contribute positively, if they see a dysfunctional culture, they contribute negatively. If you have a really good comments culture, you can even see your readers defending the culture and guiding those who got it wrong – before you have time to fix it oneself.

Relevant article: The comments and the big party (all linked articles in Norwegian – use Google Translate)
Relevant article: Who defines the shape of the net?

It is also important to have a level of consciousness that that the comments aren’t a forum. It is not a white canvas, where it is each and every man’s right to say whatever he wants on whatever topic of his choosing. It is the responsibility of the people commenting to stay on topic, and to debate in a way that does not get in the way of the discussion. If they cannot manage this, but claim a right to discuss f.i. non-western immigration under an article about web TV, our task is to react and tell them that this discussion belongs elsewhere. When people attack each other, in stead of each other’s points of view, or when they start discussing grammar instead of content, likewise. It is our task to keep the debate on track. If we let it slip, our expectations to the reading public becomes unclear, and the comments section will evolve into an open forum where it will be increasingly difficult to uphold simple rules of conduct after having forgiven the one hundred previous crossings of our double yellow lines. When this is allowed to happen, rot will set in fairly quickly.

Relevant article: If the debate isn’t a conversation, what’s the point?

Spam is another thing. There’s a steady flow of junk comments to most comments sections – everything from seemingly plausible comments, but with links to commercial sites, to long, disjointed harangues full of erection supplements, cheap watches and offers of unappetising sex. Spam has to be removed continuously to keep the site tidy, and to show one cares about one’s comments. We use both an automated system and we sift through manually. Our readers shall not have to do this filtering between authentic comments and junk. If people’s contributions to widening the article’s perspective live side-by-side with «cheap teen sex» offers, it sends quite clear signals on the level of resources one puts into one’s article comments.

On news articles, some news sites practice timed shutdown of the comments, automatically tailing off the debate after 2-3 days. NRKbeta has a fairly low production rate, and a lot of our content is just as fresh three years after it’s written, so this is not for us. But it’s a principle that works satisfactorily for content that loses relevance quickly, and that enables websites with a high production rate to handle debates and avoid spam.

What does NRKbeta do to ensure frequent use of the option of commenting?

It’s not something I think about every day, to be honest. Oftentimes the use comes all by itself. Also, high activity is not a goal in itself. Good activity is, though.

If we want a debate on something specific, we write an article laying down the foundations for a discussion, and end the article with a question that broadly paints a game board for a fruitful conversation.

And again, there’s that bit about being present.

How do you increase the quality of the comments?

By being present, being ourselves – trying to come across as living humans, saying so if we like or dislike something.

What can news sites learn from NRKbeta regarding manners and objective debate in the comments?

Spend time in the comments section. Be present, be human, be honest. It takes time, but might pay in the long run.

But. If you already have a destructive culture in the comments, the cost of turning it around might not be worth the effort without doing other things as well.

Relevant article: How do we bring normal manners into the comments section?

What are NRKbeta’s thoughts around the publishing of online comments:

Full name or anonymity?

We allow anonymous comments, and problems are few and far between. The big pro with this, is that it is significantly easier for people to comment than if they’d had to register etc. Even though our comments section is anonymous, many use full name and picture, or a consistent nickname. The upside of debaters using full name / consistent nick, is that the credibility of the people in part rests on what they’ve contributed earlier. People who call themselves «Your Name» or «anonymous» get a credibility that matches, so for the debaters it’s a trade-off between not having to stand up for your opinion and of being taken seriously.

Relevant article: Identity Crisis: Anonymous on the net

Should comments be premoderated, or published immediately?

Comments must be published instantly. No discussion. It is not possible to have a running conversation if it’s premoderated. The debate will instead leak over to social media or other media that do function the way the internet works.

BUT: There’s no need to have comments sections open 24 hours. We see that comments published between 1 and 7 AM tend to be worthless a little more often. Not that many that we bother, and, of course, good comments arrive in the middle of the night as well. But if premoderation is switched on at night, it isn’t usually a significant loss for the conversation – few take part at night anyway, and the resource savings are significant.

Relevant article: Premoderation of online debates

Are there any pros or cons in today’s system?

I’ve partly covered the pros further up in the text. The main drawbacks are that it’s easier to be an asshole hidden behind a computer screen, and that people often inject less quality in their statements than they’d done if they spoke under full name. On the other hand, it might be easier to say important but unpopular things, or things that are difficult to combine with a professional position.

The downside of not having premoderation is primary personal: We who write for NRKbeta are always on duty – the last thing I check before going to bed, is the comments, the first thing I do when I wake up, is check the comments, be it a work day, a week-end, christmas or my summer holiday. It gives a valuable close contact with the readers, but sometimes there are things one could wish doing aside from handling comments on a Saturday night.

As a small adjustment I’ve stopped publishing articles that can cause heated debate at the end of the week.

What is the limit for what one can write about?

Ultimately, the limit is the framework set by Norwegian law. The criminal code §135a is often mentioned, though probably it can be called a sleeping law. Before we move to criminal law, we have the codes of conduct of the Norwegian press.

But in my view the limit should be set long before that in online comments; if the debater strays off topic or away from objective debate. Freedom of speech is an important democracy cornerstone, but it does not give the public the freedom to hi-jack any randomly picked comment section and use it for parading personal hobby horses on entirely different topics, or for that part for living out sociopathic traits.

This can be said to be a natural continuation of the fact that newspapers editors selected which of the readers’ letters were fit for print. Because the web doesn’t have paper’s restricted space, and the article comment has a fairly free form and immediacy, more people get access to saying more on the net than they did in the age of paper. But everybody does not have to be granted space for everything in every form everywhere.

Freedom of speech is an evolvement of freedom of print (to use the terminology of earlier times): That one can print material with one’s own resources (or for that part say things out loud in public places) within wide limits, without risk of prosecution. But it does not grant free access to others’ web pages or access to the public of another medium at one’s own discretion.

Who defines this limit, and who’s responsible if it is broken?

The limit for what one wishes to allow, should be defined by each of the various desks in charge of their comments sections. The editor is then responsible for editing the article comments in a way that complies with the set rules. The day-to-day maintenance will oftentimes be delegated to the journalist, or, in media with higher turnaround than we have here at NRKbeta, dedicated moderators. If unclear situations or problems arise, they should be escalated up along the line of editors.

If we discuss the law side of it, the media do have an editorial responsibility, but people who make offensive statements have a responsibility as well. The relative weight of these is beyond my field of speciality and is also partly a grey zone. NRK’s Managing Editor of New Media Frank Gander tells me it lies in a no man’s land between editorial responsibility and the European e-trade directive

How do you feel about your reader having the option of commenting your articles?

It is a prerequisite for being in touch with the ground. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.

What do you think about statements in online comments yourself?

Here on NRKbeta we’re a little spoiled with a very high level in the comments, I’m all for it here. If we talk about some online news sites, I don’t think it would be a significant loss for society if they closed off the comments and started anew someplace else. Some comments sections have been neglected for so long that they might not be salvageable.

And then there’s something about the fact that a majority of us haven’t grown up communicating in writing with strangers. Because of that, I think there’s an enormous ongoing adult education project of debate culture going on at the moment. I believe, but I’m not at all sure, that the huge spread of Facebook use in Norway slowly contributes in showing people how to communicate more fruitfully. As a platform for debate, Facebook is in many ways a dead end though – most people talk to similar-minded friends, while under the impression of being part of The Big Conversation.

A different view on online comments: Do people really want to partake?

What can you do as a journalist to make sure the comments section under your article is being used by the reader?

If I’m human, honest, and if I’m writing about something that interests or engages the reader, I’ve laid a good foundation. Then I might round off my article by inviting the readers to contribute with something I genuinely want to know. A lot of people like to contribute, A lot of people like to be seen, like to get acknowledged for what they’re bringing to the table. If I facilitate for people to contribute value, they often do.

How can you as a journalist increase the quality of online comments?

I can be present, watch what’s going on, praise desired behaviour. It’s really got a lot in common with raising children as propagated by Danish family therapist Jesper Juul… Seeing your child. Except for the fact that people in the comments, unlike many children, already know a lot more than I do.

Do you read the comments under your own articles? Why, why not?

Always and continously. I get an email for every new comment. If I have an article out I wish to follow closely, I read comments continuously. If the temperature is lower, a few hours might pass between each time I read comments. But it’s seldom that more than a night’s 7 hours passes between each time I read comments.

If one of us NRKbeta people is going on a long flight or something, we do cover each other’s article comments, but the main rule is that we’re present in person.

Comments sections where the journalist is «away from home» is a veritable highway to an unusable comments section.

Do you take part in the debate together with the readers? Why, why not?

Yes. I usually flag my point of view and why as well, and – like Jay Rosen – I do believe that «the view from nowhere» and the so called objective journalist is a model past its best before date.

Are you influenced by what the reader comments? Why, why not?

If we talk about points of view
We’re probably as much influenced by comments as by other stuff we’re reading – we use our little journalist’s tool box to check «what’s she saying, why’s she saying that, what’s she trying to achieve», and then it’s filed under either «people thinking this do exist», or it is added as an adjustment to the picture of reality. We journalists tend to be generalists – we know a little about everything, and there’s nothing we know a lot about. From that perspective, our readers are really good at colouring in the white spots on the map – both our own map and that of the article. I learn something new from my readers all the time. And – once in a blue moon – I even change my view of things.

If we talk about criticism
Yes – and if people tell you otherwise, they’re probably lying 😉 . We are all social individuals and are influenced by what people say to us, even if we who are constantly commented do aquire thicker skin with time. We do after all get used to using our journalist tools on comments as well – what is the agenda of the person commenting, what is the substance of what’s being said. But I still get a buzz from praise, I get embarrassed by criticism that hits the spot – and in short bursts I do get exasperated on behalf of humanity when criticism misses…

>>>>>>>>> END OF ARTICLE <<<<<<<<<< Some selected comments to this translated: Øystein Dale
A very interesting read. I myself was under the impression that reading comments and answering them came second for almost all journalists, something not highly prioritised. I’m really pleased to hear I was wrong, and that exceptions do exist.

While discussing media, it is worth thinking target group as well. The fact that NRKbeta is solely intended for the technologically interested, and isn’t a tabloid mass medium, is probably a strong factor in keeping the discussion on topic and, not least, keeping those without constructive ideas away.

At the same time I’d also like to commend all the others writing comments here on NRKbeta. Many do a good job by adding new perspectives and angles to the otherwise excellent articles we’re being served here. I appreciate that, and I hope it will continue.

Anders Hofseth (in reply to Øystein Dale)
Thank you, Øystein 🙂

NRKbeta being intended solely for the technologically interested is a truth with some modifications; we strive (within our limited means) to make what we write accessible to as many as possible, and without demanding too much prior knowledge.The main bulk of our traffic comes off [National Public Service Broadcaster]’s front page. That means that (except when we write about super narrow topics) we have a potentially broad audience. When we write let’s say «how to do this and that with your facebook profile» or «here’s something cool we found on YouTube», we get a fairly broad readership which (I assume) does not deviate much from your normal news site public. Yet, people behave 99,9% nicely here, while they can be real apes over at, let’s say [Norwegian tabloid daily] Dagbladet.

I think there’s something thought provoking about this. And maybe the solution lies in what I wrote about Who defines the shape of the net. Anyway; encouraging.

Magne G. (in reply to Anders Hofseth)
heh, the elephant in the room – Dagbladet – was finally pointed out 😉

Petter Thorsrud
Well put and reflected, this should be part of future educational litterature! I agree that NRKbeta is blessed with exceptionally well trained (somebody did the training!) and knowledgeable readers and commenters, but I don’t agree that it’s just the technologically interested (are nerds extra polite??), I rather think there’s many of us who are more generally interested in communication and web communication who read and learn – and sometimes comment.

Non-criminal anonymous
I’d just like to thank you.
Nowadays one has to be registered in facebook or disqus to be allowed to comment articles. A small minority does not wish to register in networks such as these for various reasons. Even if you are under NRK, I think it’s great that you can be so outspoken here in NRKbeta.
Proud RSS-follower

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