The Engaging News Project, based at the University of Texas, analysed nearly 2,500 comments posted on a Facebook page owned by an unnamed regional television news station in the US*.
Over a study period of 70 days, the TV station reacted to comments on its Facebook page in one of three ways: a prominent political reporter interacted with commenters; the station, using a generic station logo, interacted; or no one interacted.
The results showed that when a reporter intervened in the comment section, the chance of an uncivil comment – defined as obscene language, name calling, stereotyping and exaggerated arguments – declined by 15 per cent compared to when no one did so.
Natalie Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project, believes when a journalist interacts with commenting, "it sort of humanises it."
"That person is associated with the story," Stroud told Journalism.co.uk, "so people think, 'this person is quite invested and wants to hear our thoughts'.
"That same thought process might not occur when it's just a generic station interacting with comments.When the station engaged, we actually didn't see any difference at all."
The reporter interacting in the comments is "a well-known face," Stroud noted. However, she believes the most important aspect is not that he is easily recognisable, but that he was listening to the conversation.
"I think it did help that people had some recognition of this person," said Stroud. "Of course, we didn't test what it would be like for someone that's less well known.
"My suspicion though, is that [interacting] can make a difference even if it's someone less well known. If it's a real person who really cares, that makes a difference."If it's a real person who really cares, that makes a differenceNatalie Stroud, the Engaging News Project
Prior to the study, around 40 per cent of posts on the station's Facebook page – which then had around 40,000 fans – contained “some form of incivility”, Stroud noted. However, she does not think this is “uncharacteristic of other Facebook pages that are out there”.
One key finding from the study, she added, was that even a little interaction from journalists can make a difference to the civility of comments.
"On the days the reporter interacted with the commenters, he was only posting an average of four or five times in the comment stream and we were able to detect a significant difference," she explained. "But," she added, "newsrooms should experiment within their own unique environment to find out how it works for them."
Another key thing the reporter did was to highlight strong comments as opposed to getting involved in uncivil comments, said Stroud, something she refers to as "modelling of civil behaviour".
"It's easy to get wrapped up in the incivility but I think modelling of civil behaviour was a really strong way of handling the comment section," she explained.
"With his interactions, the reporter was writing things like: 'Great comment, I really appreciate how you said that. Does anyone else have something to add?' Or asking questions of people."
Responding in this way, said Stroud, "plays into the incentive structure of comments".
"It makes people think: 'If I wasn't doing this uncivil thing, maybe I would get an acknowledgement from a journalist," she added.
"I hope that's the underlying rationale for all of this."
The commenting study is just one of a number of projects carried out by the Engaging News Project, which launched in 2012 with the aim of connecting business and democratic objectives for newsrooms.
* The station asked researchers not to disclose its name because it did not want its Facebook community to “feel like it was being experimented on,” explained Stroud. However, she will reveal it is a major news outlet affiliated with a major television network.