Research confirms that for many online commenters, the article is beside the point

The news is crazy. The comments can be worse.
The news is crazy. The comments can be worse.
Image: Reuters/Joe Skipper
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A new study has confirmed something many news readers have long suspected: A lot of online commenters are more interested in brandishing their opinions in the comment section than reading the articles themselves.

More than half of the people who leave comments on news stories spend as much or more time on the comments as with the actual story, according to the study, from the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Almost 20% cop to spending more time on the comment section than on the story.

The results are part of an extensive examination of the people who comment on news organizations’ websites, social media pages, apps, and in other forums. Talia Stroud, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of communications at Austin, presented her report at a SXSW panel this week looking at news organizations’ vexed relationship with user comments.

At their best, comment sections are thriving examples of civil discourse. At their worst, they are troll-infested pits of cruelty, bigotry, and ignorance, where personal attacks and slurs count as dialogue. (Case in point, here’s a real comment on a recent story on the upcoming GOP convention: “sorry but I am not bat@!$%# crazy, people like you are why the usa is so screwed up”)

Perhaps because of this tone, the study found that most internet users stay away from news site comments and do not read or post them. One in three (35%) will look at comments but never chime in. Just 14% of internet users who have ever commented anywhere—Facebook, a product review site or otherwise—have done so on a news site.

Those who comment at least once a week are more likely to be men (64%) and to have a high school education or less (53%) than those who only allow themselves an occasional peek. For many of these enthusiastic commenters, the comment section may be the whole point of their visit.

“You would think people spend the lion’s share of their time on the article and the comments are an afterthought,” said Stroud.

Not so. Commenters may in fact barely digest the facts of a story before jumping in with an opinion, Stroud said. Some may get no farther than the headline before opining, particularly on an organization’s Facebook page. For many commenters, the article is beside the point. For these users, a news site is just a meeting point for a thriving community.

Frustrated by the unruliness, outlets from Reuters to Mic have scrapped comments altogether. The Engaging News Project is one of many places looking at ways to harness these discussions for good. In the same SXSW panel, the Coral Project—a collaboration of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Mozilla Corporation—introduced Trust, an app that helps news organizations keep track of their commenters and moderate discussions.

One strategy that some organizations have tried is sending a reporter into the comment section to engage directly with readers—which has been shown to reduce “comment instability” (in other words, the crazy stuff) by 15%, Stroud noted.

How that intervention takes place is important. Sixty percent of commenters said they’d welcome journalists clarifying factual questions, but only 26% wanted reporters to direct the conversation. Understanding how participants see these forums could help turn them into more civil spaces.