RNZ puts its online comments section out of its misery

After 18 months of having its comment section switched on, RNZ has decided it will no longer allow comments on its website and it will phase out the capability on its site by the end of the week, instead encouraging comments on its social media channels. Holly Bagge chats to RNZ's Megan Whelan about why it made the decision and what it means for its audience. PLUS: How technology might improve comment sections in the future, and Fairfax’s approach to its comment sections.

After 18 months of having its comment section switched on, RNZ has announced it will no longer allow comments on its website and it will phase out the capability on its site by the end of the week, instead encouraging comments on its social media channels. 

RNZ community engagement editor Megan Whelan says RNZ had been in discussion for several weeks now about whether it would turn off comment functionality on its website, and has decided it’s the best option for the broadcaster.

“The resource required to make them good is more than we can spare at the moment and we’d rather focus on giving people a good experience on the website and social media,” she says.

RNZ turned its comments on 18 months ago, and she says it was an experiment to see if having them would work.

“It was to see if our audience wanted comments,” Whelan says. “And there is a small group of committed users who are having very long and very interesting and engaging conversations.”

Humans are competitive creatures, as anyone who has ever been in a heated Trade Me bidding war (only to spend far too much to their own detriment) can attest, and comment sections are no different. Whelan says although people commenting will often start out sharing their well thought out and well-researched opinions, the conversation would quickly descend into two or three people bickering among themselves, trying to one up each other. And whether RNZ should provide a platform for that, was the question.

It also requires a lot of work to make sure commenters aren’t saying anything libellous or offensive, she says. “It’s fine for something to go off topic but not wildly off topic and frankly between that and moderating comments through Facebook, and we get vastly more comments on Facebook, we thought it better to focus on those areas.”

The difficulty in comment moderation was felt by RNZ earlier in the year when it was sanctioned by OMSA for not acting quickly enough when unpleasant comments appeared on its Facebook regarding Prime Minister John Key.

RNZ’s John Campbell questioned Key about wearing his favoured flag design on his lapel before and during voting in the referendum, according to Mediawatch, and the comments included violent and extreme language.

RNZ apologised and eventually removed all of the comments but according to OMSA, didn’t act fast enough and complaints about the comments were upheld under the terms of its “Responsible Content” standard.

Whelan says since then RNZ has upped its profanity filters and made sure all of its pages have active moderation, adding that a lot of comments that might have once been okay have since been filtered out.

She says though the situation forced RNZ to make sure it has better structures in place, it has nothing to do with the choice to get rid of comments. 

And though for now, the decision to drop them has been made, Whelan says she won't rule out turning on comments for individual stories in the future if RNZ adopts another system for monitoring that might make comment moderation easier for the broadcaster.

In fact, she says if RNZ had the means to hire someone else to monitor comments on the website it would keep online comments. “The Guardian, for instance, has a massive team of moderators that work 24/7, and if we had the resource like that I think we would [keep them]. And I think we could turn it into something wonderful and it could be a really useful thing. But we just don’t have the resource and we would rather web editors make sure our stories are great.”

RNZ will soon be relaunching its website, and Whelan says thought has gone into putting links to social for individual stories, to direct its audience to a platform where it can comment. She hopes technology in the future might be able to aid publishers with comment moderation, and points to The Coral Project, an initiative between the Mozilla Foundation, the New York Times and The Washington Post. According to its website, The Coral Project is working on creating open-source tools and resources for publishers of all sizes to build better communities around their journalism.

Tools will include “the importing, storage, moderation, and display of contributions to news websites … We want to give publishers the ability to better understand their contributors and control the level of discourse on their sites; empower contributors to manage their identities and data, and provide readers with a more productive discussion about current events”, its website says.

Whelan says it will be great if they can build systems that are easier for publishers to moderate and believes the problems around comments are technological as well as human, saying it would be great to "have reasonable conversations rather than what you see on sites, with one hundred people screaming into the void". 

Relationships between publishers and their online audiences seem to be becoming increasingly fraught, with a number of trolls leaving offensive comments to get a reaction, spoiling it for those who head to the comment section for good-natured discussion. In other words, there are a few bad eggs spoiling the bunch.

Because of this, some publishers overseas have also opted to cut their comment sections. For example, The Daily DotThe Telegraph and The Verge(the latter only temporarily) shut down their comments, because they had become too hard to manage, according to Digiday (as far as we are aware RNZ is the first publisher to axe its comment section in New Zealand).

The WeekMic, Reuters and Re-Code all shutdown comment sections last year for similar reasons.

The Financial Times argues comment sections are a good thing, saying it disables comments on its most contentious stories but finds them an important platform for adding commercial value for advertisers (only its subscribers can comment), for getting its journalists to care about their readers and for shaping article ideas, according to Digiday. However, The Financial Times has the budget to have people moderating comments practically 24 hours a day.

The Coral Project isn’t the only platform attempting to make comment sections easier to deal with. Solid Opinion is also trying to get readers to pay to contribute or promote their comments, arguing that charging readers would introduce a new revenue stream for digital publishers as well as tackling trolls, according to Fast Company. The problem with this, however, is the danger of creating elitist news platforms where only those who can afford to comment will be able to.

It's worth mentioning that comments aren't just a problem for news publishers either; brands too need to be careful about what they're posting on social. As Michael Goldthorpe pointed out in an earlier piece for StopPress, the Australian Standards board ruled in 2012 that any content on a brand’s Facebook page should be subject to the same rules as any other ad. And it’s the brand's job to make sure they comply.

So will those die-hard RNZ commenters be pissed off?

“I think there are going to be a couple of people who are mad at me but this is the decision that we have made and they are entitled to be mad at us. But there are still ways for people to comment and for people to tell us what they think and give their opinions and hopefully in a way that is more useful for everyone,” Whelan says.

She says RNZ is still very interested to know what its audience thinks.

Whelan says that for RNZ to serve the public, it needs to know what its audience is interested in.

“Increasingly though, that’s happening in places away from our own website. In the days before social media, the idea was that comments were a place where our audiences could engage with our journalism, add their thoughts and expertise to stories, and in the best possible way, deepen the discourse,” she says. “We’re lucky enough not to have to worry about it, but I am sure there are also advertising benefits to them.”

Fairfax sticks with comments

Fairfax group digital and visual editor Mark Stevens says comment sections are important, and that some of Fairfax’s audience is reading/watching content on its social platforms, but some aren't. “But they all deserve to be able to engage with us on that content. Commenting is a very important part of the relationship between the newsroom and our audience,” he says.

However, he admits moderating comments on Fairfax’s websites and its social media channels is difficult.

“It’s hard. It’s time consuming and the comment queue can be a pretty toxic place. But that's not a reason to give up on it or ditch it for the majority of commenters who actually have something constructive to add to our stories,” he says. “It's vital that we treat this part of what we publish with the same care as we give our journalism. We pre-moderate comments on our own platforms but this isn't always possible with social.”

Is comment moderation endangering freedom of speech?

“Possibly, but equally we have a responsibility to ensure we aren't breaking the law or being unnecessarily offensive in what we publish on our site,” he says. “That doesn't translate to moderating out opinions we don't agree with, but it does mean we have no tolerance for hate speech, or swearing, or defamatory remarks etc.”

He says in addition to ensuring comments met Fairfax’s terms and conditions, he is also an advocate of keeping the comment section civil. “We don’t nail that every single time, but we do try hard to keep the nastiness out of there, even if the trolls are managing to stay on the right side of the law.”

Generally, he says, Fairfax keeps comments off crime and court stories, and blocked repeat offenders. Otherwise, they will be managed in terms of moderation resource rather than story type.

He says at the moment Fairfax receives most comments on its own site and it apps.

StopPress contacted NZME earlier to ask for the publisher’s opinion on comment sections, but it did not get back to us.

It’s a tricky problem, and its trickiness is in perfect correlation with the rapid growth of publishers’ online audiences. It seems only time will tell if comment sections will buckle under the pressure of offensive comments and trolls, but with initiatives like The Coral Project aiming to solve the technology behind the problem, hopefully things will only get better and people can continue to comment freely, sans those bad eggs. 

This story originally appeared on StopPress.