In the old days, you published an article and maybe you got a handful of letters to the editor-of which only a couple were likely to be printed. Your editor would sort through the mail and hold letter writers accountable for their words. In today's connected world, after a journalist publishes an article, the comments section allows anyone to air his opinions without the filter of the old editorial desk. This has resulted in more two-way communication between writers and readers, but it can also lead to some rude, and even crude, responses.
The other day, I published a story that resulted in many responses. Some people were unhappy with my conclusions. I responded as calmly as I could to each response and a couple of readers who had originally posted somewhat harsh responses were surprised, as you can see: "Was not expecting you to interact with the commentators :P. Glad you did so. Sorry for being so harsh..." and "Well, I gotta say I totally disagree with you... However, I respect that you are so timely and professional with your responses to everyone's comments!"
I respected their opinions even when they disagreed with me, and that surprised at least a couple of the readers. I always try to be civil with people who respond to my articles, even if they disagree with me and even if they are rude, but a recent study by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas-Austin found that journalists can help steer the conversation in a more civil direction. In other words, science is backing me up!
Mean-spirited comments aren't just unpleasant. They have concrete side effects, according to the report, which reports that incivility in the news depresses trust in government institutions and can even have an impact on readers' beliefs. Furthermore, some news sites have gone so far as to shut off comments because they feel the tenor of the comments section is hurting their brands.
But the report had some good news too. There are ways to encourage civility among your audience of commenters, such as asking readers pointed questions to give them guidance on how to interact. The report also concludes that when the writer gets involved in commenting, answering legitimate questions, and providing additional information, that too can encourage more courteous interactions.
When you do this, as I did in my post, people will start to be more civil. I've also found simply praising people who share disagreement in a civil fashion also helps foster a positive tone in comments.
Very often the internet encourages negative discourse because we are hidden behind our smartphones and our computer keyboards, and we don't feel the need to behave in the same way we would in "real life." Sometimes anonymity leads to rude behavior, and every once in a while, it slips into abhorrent acts where, for instance, women are threatened or ridiculed. In my circles, I'm always a little shocked by how seriously people take their technology choices. Similar to their political and religious beliefs, their choice of a tablet becomes part of their identity. When you don't agree with them, they may literally, consciously or not, see an article or an opinion piece as an attack on their very way of life.
It doesn't excuse some of the interactions we see on the internet, but it at least provides some basis for understanding why people might behave so badly. I wouldn't be surprised if they think we write our pieces, post them, and then walk away forever, never to return to the comments section. But similar to the commenters who wrote to me, most readers are more likely to have a polite discussion when confronted by the author. If you find yourself battling a true troll-who is only interested in inciting negative discourse-all the author interaction in the world is unlikely to help the situation, but luckily trolls are still the minority. Most people simply don't consider that there is a real person behind the article-who may actually read their responses-and if you provide a context for decent interaction, they'll respond in kind. The study from the University of Texas-Austin also shows that when you diffuse the anger, you can bring a measure of civility to the discourse and make the comments section a place where people can exchange and debate ideas without getting personal or firing ad hominem attacks on others.