Tweeting birds
Credit: Photo by petesimon on Twitter. Some rigts reserved.

How to manage online reader responses

Twitter and other social media platforms are quickly becoming a major outlet for breaking news (doubters should just look at @BBCBreaking which now has over 1.9 million followers). From national disasters to political movements, Twitter is increasingly being used by people on the ground to report events as they happen around them, and these tweets can reach strangers on continents thousands of miles away before the man a couple of streets away has had a chance to stroll down to the shops to pick up a paper. And as we have seen, social media can operate in areas that traditional journalism cannot, such as bypassing celebrity super-injunctions.

Readers are no longer passive consumers. They expect to comment, to debate and even disagree with arguments that you express in your articles.Tamara Littleton
Readers are no longer passive consumers. They expect to comment, to debate and even disagree with arguments that you express in your articles. Major news publishers all accept user-generated content on their sites - which can be anything from comments on articles to blogs responding to articles - with or without involvement from the journalist who wrote the original piece.

The main concern of any journalist has traditionally been the story rather than the response, yet the response has now become something that helps shape the story. Journalists are finding their roles include the management of these responses. How do you approach this?

Be cautious when responding to reader comments

We know from our own experience that where there is evidence of an authoritative voice within the community, there are fewer issues with abusive user behaviour, so it can help to get involved with user comments. It also cuts down the amount of spam posted to the site. But it can be problematic. Dealing with angry or abusive responses can be challenging, particularly when the abuse is personal. Avoid getting involved in any contentious debates, and walk away from criticism. If you do not, it can backfire. AdAge published a great story on the ‘chapter missing’ from Twitter’s newsroom guide, citing a ‘throw down’ on Twitter between Jeff Jarvis and Jeff Bercovici. It is very easy to respond in anger with the online world watching.

Know when you are on dangerous ground

There are always certain types of stories that are more likely to generate abusive comments from readers. Anything covering emotive issues - religion, race, sexuality, war, politics - attracts strong feelings. Recognise which stories are likely to generate strong emotions, and deal with them appropriately:

  • Make sure you adhere to the terms of the site. Do not allow abusive or threatening posts

  • If appropriate, move the discussion elsewhere, for example to a forum that is separate from the main news site. This gives you a bit of distance and allows you to treat it slightly differently from a normal article discussion

  • If you know there is a contentious story coming up, and you are employing moderators, brief them in advance so they can prepare.

Report abuse or threatening behaviour

Threatening or abusive behaviour is not ok, and you do not have to accept it as inevitable. Have a clear escalation process in place so that any reader comments that worry you (such as threats) can be dealt with by trained community managers. Do not tackle them yourself.

Correcting mistakes

There may come a time when one of your articles contains either an editing error, or a genuine mistake which results in an incorrect fact being published. It is easy enough to get the article corrected, but what if it is already being re-tweeted by your followers? MediaShift’s Nathan Gibbs has some great advices which includes getting a screen grab of the error, sending out a correction on the same platform and informing those people who shared the wrong information.

Moderating reader comments

There are four options:

  1. Pre-moderation (all comments are moderated before they go live). This is obviously the safest route to take to protect the reputation of the organisation and is the one most serious news organisations opt for. However, it has a major disadvantage in that there will be a time lag and many comments may never be screened due to high volumes.

  2. Post-moderation (all comments are moderated after they go live, and removed if they are abusive). This is slightly more risky, as inappropriate comments will be seen by the community, and associated with the media brand. Again, there is danger that high volumes may mean that not all comments are screened.

  3. A combination of pre and post moderation. Reuters has ‘approved’ commentators – people who have a strong record of behaving well in a community and having their comments approved – who can move away from pre-moderation to post-moderation. There is a cost advantage to this approach, as you do not need round-the-clock moderation.

  4. Relying on the community to moderate comments by flagging them. This is the most risky strategy, and has the most potential to damage the brand. In the UK, however, unlike the US, there is still some confusion around who is responsible for user-generated content on a news site, and some news organisations take this route to try to cover themselves under the EU Commerce Directive hosting exemption. But in practice, legal rulings on the use of the Hosting Defence have varied: it is an extremely grey legal area. In the main, brands take their duty of care very seriously, and agree that it is important to moderate thoroughly, to protect the brand’s own reputation and, of course, its users.

Moderating comments on Twitter

Of course, you can not moderate what people say on Twitter – and creating hashtags for particular subjects can be a risk, as there is no way of moderating a live feed. What you can do is to moderate Twitter feeds that are pulled into websites, to avoid being ‘brandjacked’ on your site or Facebook page.

Blocking comments completely

Blocking comments completely is an option in some cases, for example those stories most likely to incite a strong reaction from the community, or on coverage of a legal case. The Portland Press Herald blocked user comments entirely in late 2010, in response to 'vile, crude, insensitive and vicious postings'. (That policy has since been reversed and comments are enabled, but with a strict no-bullying policy made clear at the top of each comments page.)

But there is a real difference between negative and abusive comments. Inviting commentary on news articles will generate differences of opinion and healthy debate. Views that disagree with those of the news organisation should be accepted (and actually help to make the site feel authentic, open and honest). But there is no need to put up with abuse, personal comments or spam. Equally, libellous comments should be removed. Although in the US publications are not legally responsible for libellous postings on their sites (unless altered by the organisation – see our legal section, below), this is a more grey area in the UK, and it is good practice to remove anything that could drag you or your users into a court of law.

The future for social news

There is an excellent article in the Economist which claims that news is going back to its traditional roots before mass media: a time when it was spread through word of mouth in coffee houses and taverns, via leaflets and newsletters. Those coffee house conversations are now held on Facebook, and Twitter has replaced the pamphlet. But the basic human behaviour – sharing information and views on current events – has not changed.

While of course social media does not cause revolutions, it plays a part in communicating those revolutions to the outside world, faster than we have ever known (and in doing so facilitates them, provides critical mass to nascent movements). A consumer with a mobile phone is as likely to provide that front page story as a journalist in situ. The traditional news model – one way communication of news – has shifted for good. But consumers are still seeking out reliable news sources over these new channels, just as journalists are seeking out reliable sources.

Managed properly, the engagement between news media and consumers could benefit both sides immeasurably.

About Tamara Littleton

Tamara Littleton (@tlittleton) is CEO and founder of social media management agency eModeration, which works with some of the biggest brands in the world, including media owners MTV, ITV, A&E Television Networks, Oprah Winfrey Network and BBC Worldwide.

Her white paper,
Managing Social Media: a guide for news sites and media organisations, is free to download from

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