New Tricks: Rules of engagement: How journalists can – and should – respond to comments

April 6th, 2009

Traveling to different newsrooms is a big part of my job, and no two newsrooms are completely alike.

I’m an evangelist not just for social media tools, but getting newsrooms and news organizations to interact with readers at a very basic level. Some folks — many of whom are full-time bloggers — are naturally good at it, but when it comes to reporters, many don’t even want to engage readers on the “Comments” section of their stories.

This post will help guide you through this very act. There are a few things to remember, however:

1. Responding to comments is part of your job. Period.

2. Do not judge your readership based on a few bad apples. If you’re a reporter, don’t give up on your digital audience after a couple of crap comments. They’re probably anonymous, anyway.

3. There is no such thing as a one-comment story. If there’s one comment, there are two: the first comment and your response. Once you reach five comments or so, you don’t need to respond to everyone, but it’s good to continue to be a part of the conversation.

Here’s when you absolutely must respond to a reader:

- When a reader has a question about your story. Sometimes, through no fault of anyone’s, there are details that are edited out or just not addressed at all. If a reporter can provide an extra bit of information, it’s incumbent upon them to do it. Hell, there’s nothing wrong with leaving a reader happy.

- If someone bashes you. Sometimes comment boards can spiral out of control, especially when a reader bashes you, but if you respond to an angry reader, it cuts them off at the knees and may ultimately win them over. If the commenter responds, and you have their e-mail address, answer them privately.

- When you feel you have to keep your conversation and comment strings on point. If your comment board allows for threaded comments, this may be a non-issue; however, sometimes the conversation just takes an unexpected turn. Don’t be afraid to jump in and keep folks on track.

Sometimes the conversation can just spiral out of control. Here’s when I think it’s OK to ban a commenter:

- When someone makes a racist, sexist or homophobic comment.

- When one of your readers bashes another. Keep folks polite, and they’ll keep coming back.

It may be good to sit down with your site producers and editors to create a clear set of rules — Terms of Service, if you will — for your site. This way, if you ban someone, they’ll know exactly why. Just don’t go ban-happy.

Steward the conversation, and acknowledge your good readers/commenters. If you do, you have a real chance of building community around your blog or beat.

When do you think it’s OK — and not OK — to respond to comments? What’s your rule of thumb?

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Entry Filed under: blogging,New Tricks,Newspaper,social media

  • http://thelostjacket.com Stuartfoster

    Daniel. The first one as you mentioned, should be a litmus test for all additional thinking on commenting. Everything else should come fairly naturally and flow peacefully. Occasionally, you will get some harsh criticism but nothing that borders on the particularly offensive. If it does reach that level, act calmly and engage them politely and professionally (but do pwn them).

  • http://savethemedia.com Gina Chen

    I think your tips are great. I've been learning so much about the value of responding to comments, and I'm really convinced that responding to readers' comments early and often helps to prevent the development of the comment “ghetto” that plagues so many newspaper Web sites. (Sure there will always be jerks, but if you set the tone right away that your blog isn't a place where people can just be ignorant unchecked, I think the jerks find another spot.)

    I used to just ignore it if someone blasted me or my story or post in a comment. (Traditional journalistic wisdom.) But I've found that engaging professionally works better. (You can't rant and stoop to their level, although you can use a bit of diplomacy.) Sometimes the person just didn't understand you. Sometimes the person just wants a scapegoat. But if you respond, you end up with a dialogue at the very least that might inform other readers even if it's lost on the commenter. (It's pretty neat, too, when regular readers jump in and defend you!)

    I do like your rule of thumb — after five comments you don't have to respond to every one. Makes sense. Things do eventually get repetitive.

  • Roger

    Good information — all newsrooms should follow these examples

  • Michael

    Would you add sexist and homophobic to racist comments?

  • http://tvtyrant.com AmyVernon

    I wish all reporters read this. When I was an editor, I had to remind people of this too often.

    One other thing, however, is to remind reporters that they should respond to comments dispassionately and not inject opinion. If someone's being obnoxious, respond to any legitimate point they raise and ignore the obnoxious part. When I did that, I found the commenters became really really polite because someone – anyone – was responding to them.

    I got respect because I gave respect. And whenever they complained about anything, they apologized to me, saying they weren't blaming me, I was just one of only a couple of people who listened. While that wasn't true, and many people were listening, I was one of just a few who responded politely and respectfully.

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com Daniel

    Absolutely. You want to control your domain. I'll actually add those points to my post. Thanks for the reminder, Michael.

  • http://www.nextedit.com Website Editor

    good stuff, all news paper should follow these…

  • http://danielhonigman.com dan360man

    “I got respect because I gave respect.”

    Absolutely. Respect your audience. Love your audience. The news business is not about the news. It's about attracting an audience, and that audience is sold to advertisers. A reporter's livelihood rests solely on their audience.

  • Pingback: Wisdom of the crowds: Create the ideal newspaper comment board rules | Old Media, New Tricks

  • http://www.synergybuzz.com/ internet marketing ideas

    great job on this post you really know how to deal with your readers good job,,reading this post i had learned so much about the value of responding to comments, you really had convinced me that responding to readers' comments early and often helps to prevent the development of the comment.

  • Pingback: Five blogging mistakes | Save the Media

  • http://pcholics.blogspot.com/ agentmango

    So far, I find mistakes you written on your posts that i am commiting at present.

    1. No about me page
    2. Fake NamesReply – Quote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • http://teachj.wordpress.com/ Teach_J (Robert Courtemanche)

    I originally committed both the mystery blogger/fake name sins on my blog, but I felt that I had a good reason. As a teacher, I sometimes write about things my students do. I never use their names, but if you know who I am, you might be able to guess who they are. I also didn’t want to be out in the open because I was concerned with my district’s take on teacher’s blogging at first. It was more than a year before I decided to put my real name on my blog.

    I do agree that it is hard to be a part of the community if you are anonymous. So it is a trade off. I do think educators need to be somewhat circumspect when creating a blog. We are not just blogging about ourselves, but often our students too, even if only by describing our methods.

    For members of the media, I totally agree with all of your points, but especially the transparency. The media must always keep itself open to the public or it loses any power it has.

    But I didn’t fall into your other four mistakes. Yeah me! Great post, thanks for sharing.Reply – Quote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • bloggingmom67

    @Teach_J (Robert Courtemanche) –

    Hey, I committed all six of my mistakes at one point or another.

    I can see your reasoning about using fake name, considering you’re writing about your students (even anonymously). That’s similar to what I was saying about the mom bloggers.

    And it is a tricky issue about blogging about something related to work — and not being sure if your employer will like that. I went through that, too. (They didn’t fire me yet, so I guess I’m OK.)

    Blogging opens up a whole new world of communication. Thanks for adding your voice.

    – GinaReply – @Teach_J (Robert Courtemanche)Quote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • bloggingmom67

    @agentmango –

    Oh, come on. We just want to know who you really are, agent mango!

    – GinaReply – @agentmangoQuote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • http://www.mediaslackers.com/blog MediaSlackers

    Gina,

    You make some good points and I respect you for your dedication to the profession as well as your open-minded approach to the future of journalism. However, one thing that got to me was the mention of anonymity as a mistake. As you can see, I am a big believer in anonymity in blogging, if you have reasonable reasons for it. I agree perhaps one has to work harder to develop credibility because of it, but this is an intentional trade-off I am willing to accept. While my reasons for secrecy are due to the sensitive nature of both my career and the careers of those who share their thoughts with my readers, I have written of many other examples of why this is important and should be embraced by people in your profession. I would prefer to openly promote my blog and perhaps can do so in the future, but at present that just isn’t possible.

    One other note is related to your example of Penelope Trunk. Great blogger, however not her real name… She’s even blogged about why she “changed” it.

    Keep up the good work.Reply – Quote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • bloggingmom67

    @MediaSlackers –

    Like all rules, they are made to be broken if it makes sense. It sounds like anonymity works for you, so be it. (It does depend on your blog, what you hope to accomplish and, I think, the likelihood you’ll get fired if you use your real name.)

    Didn’t know that about Penelope Trunk. Thought that was her real name. (Hangs head in shame.) Thanks for cluing me in.

    – GinaReply – @MediaSlackersQuote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • http://teachj.wordpress.com/ Teach_J (Robert Courtemanche)

    Penelope Trunk sounds a little too “Harry Potter” to me. It just screams nom de plum. But who am I to say, mine is just my profession abbreviated.

    RobertReply – Quote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • http://twitter.com/ishwie Joyce

    “The best blogs, I think, add to the conversation…” agree honey but sometimes we in a hurry & still want to pass it around!Reply – Quote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • bloggingmom67

    @Joyce – True, true, true.

    Always want to spread the good word quickly. Couldn’t agree more with that. But when there is time, it’s great do both — spread the word and expand on it.

    – GinaReply – @JoyceQuote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • http://edsondeandrade.blogspot.com/ Edson de Andrade

    Hi Gina,

    I think is important to show your real name on your blog, specially when it’s a journalist’s blog. The mistake in my blog is that I didn’t have an e-mail adress to people contact me, thanks to your advices the problem is solved. Since I found you on twitter, I am learning a lot of thinks. Keep writing interesting thinks for us. Thanks.Reply – Quote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • bloggingmom67

    @Teach_J (Robert Courtemanche) –

    Yes … now that I know Penelope Trunk isn’t her real name it does seem obvious. Silly me.

    – GinaReply – @Teach_J (Robert Courtemanche)Quote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • bloggingmom67

    @Edson de Andrade –

    Glad to be of help and thanks for sharing your experience.

    – GinaReply – @Edson de AndradeQuote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com/ Daniel

    Great post, Gina. I also just enjoy discovering new sites that link to me. One’s audience can come from anywhere — but it’s a blogger’s responsibility to cultivate it.Reply – Quote

    This comment was originally posted on Save the Media


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