Credit: Gerd Altmann

The comment section is always a colourful read. From petty disputes between readers that can go on for a respectable amount of time, to the occasional gem of information that completes the story, you never know what you will discover.

But letting the audience have their say inspires some to insult fellow readers as well as abusing journalists. In worst cases, this can go as far as libel.

Most recently, the story about Worcester News reporter Jemma Bufton reminded us that online harassment in readers’ comments also has an impact on journalists’ mental health.

Everything in moderation

Despite all the downsides, most UK local papers keep their comment sections open.

"It gives people a chance to have their say about stories," says Brighton and Hove News editor, Frank le Duc, in defence of the comment section that has been running since the title launched 11 years ago.

The trouble is, online comments need to be moderated and le Duc takes it upon himself to email the authors of offensive posts, explain why their comment has been taken down and how they can do better next time.

The need for moderation is the biggest problem, according to Nathan Briant, a former regional journalist who now works for the BBC. After years of local newsroom shrinkage, he said, it is unreasonable to expect the overstretched teams to produce a newspaper, break news online and have to then monitor what anonymous people are saying under names like "wobbler" and "HomerSimpsondohdoh".

That is even more true during the covid-19 pandemic as more local journalists have been made redundant and papers struggle to survive.

Audience growth

That said, Brighton and Hove News does not usually receive deluges of abusive comments, which le Duc puts down to the tone his team set on the website which has around 70,000 unique readers a week.

"A lot of that has grown because people have been able to give feedback and engage with our content," he says. More engagement results in more website traffic which then boosts advertising revenue. It also gives journalists the chance to connect with the readers and build a sense of community.

But so does social media and article comments hardly ever outweigh Facebook discussions in terms of volume. Social platforms also allow readers to share an article and tag friends which sharply increases web traffic. In the case of Brighton and Hove News, around 40 per cent of all readers come to the website from social channels.

On the flip side, not everyone uses social media and some readers may not want to use their public accounts to comment on a local story. So, although less efficient, the comment section can be seen as more inclusive, plus it does not rely on third-party algorithms which gives the newsroom more control over the content.

Legal dangers

If a topic is sensitive and creates strong views, commenters can easily cross the line between opinion and libel.

Whilst there are defences against defamation regarding online comments, they are limited and require the publisher to prove that reasonable care was taken and that they had no reason to believe they were contributing to publishing a defamatory statement. Put plainly, news websites must moderate readers’ comments and be quick to act.

The comment section is thus a risky, time-consuming and maybe even an obsolete engagement tool that papers hold on to ‘because we have always done it this way.’

"But I think the opportunity to comment under a story is very valuable and I would hate to take it away from people," concludes le Duc.

What is your view? Get in touch via @journalismnews.

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