What happens when journalists join in the discussion in the often-frightening comments section below their articles? That’s one of the questions I sought to answer in my book, Discussing the News: the uneasy alliance of participatory journalists and the critical public, published earlier this year.
In traditional newspaper culture, journalists do not often engage with their readers. So, as a researcher I jumped at the chance of witnessing an attempt to foster a more conversational relationship between journalists and the public at the newly-founded Slovak daily, Denník N.
The newspaper is based in the Slovakian capital Bratislava. It was set up by the senior editors of Slovakia’s second-most read daily, SME, who walked out in protest in September 2014 when a financial group suspected of political influence and corruption acquired a 50% stake in the newspaper.
Half the newsroom followed them into a new venture, which was initially only online. In January 2015, they launched a print edition five days a week.
Participation and editorial independence
As an antidote to the rise of media oligarchs in Central Europe, Denník N relies on a subscription-based business model. It views this approach as a condition for editorial independence and sees it as a promising strategy in Slovakia, where internet penetration rate is of 85% and the press is free.
In this country of over 5 million people, readers are above-average news consumers. According to a 2015 poll conducted for my research about 72% of respondents were active participants in news dissemination, both via social networks and on newspaper websites. What’s more, according to the 2016 Digital News Report, Slovakia is the leading EU nation for commenting on news websites.
By building a strong relationship with its audience, Denník N sought to offset the chronic dependence of media organisations on institutional or private shareholders with potentially conflicting interests. Participation was a natural extension of this philosophy as it encourages readers to subscribe and make the media more independent.
The newspaper encouraged its journalists not just to read the comments on their articles but to respond to them. And, to varying degrees, they did.
Journalists reply on journalism
In analysing these exchanges and talking to journalists, I discovered that there were certain comment types that journalists significantly over- or under-selected for reply.
They had a strong preference for comments about journalism. Readers commenting on editorial choices – mistakes, headlines, accusations of bias – rather than on the theme of an article were more likely to get a response.
The journalists’ responses drew on a stable repertoire of argumentative forms. Basically, when they engaged – beyond simple acknowledgements and thanks – they resorted either to process or to authority arguments. These, as Andrew Abbott describes in his book The System of Professions, are strategies of professional legitimisation.
In the screenshot above, a reporter thanks a reader for spotting a typo before explaining that the report was published “two minutes after the President’s official statement arrived”. This reference to the time pressure that online newspapers work under when dealing with breaking news highlights that they sometimes sacrifice orthographic precision for speed.
This is what’s called a process argument, in that the author provides an insight into the conditions of production of an article. The logic is that if people have a better understanding of a process they might be more understanding of the results.
The second type of justification is the authority argument. In commenting on their own pieces, journalists would, wherever possible efface their own voice and defer to other, more credible authorities. They might quote in greater depth one of the sources of their article, link to an official report, scientific article or statistical database, or cite a public opinion poll in order to back up the facts or interpretations outlined in the piece.
In both process and authority arguments, Slovak journalists used the discussion as an accountability instrument, acting almost in the manner of readers’ editors or ombudsmen.
Occasionally, they took a different track. Some writers crossed the line of neutrality and distance that journalists usually keep, and digressed from facts to interpretations. They took up or threw down polemical gauntlets and got into arguments.
The three who did so most frequently had different backgrounds and beats: one was a commentator writing mostly on economic issues; another was a young reporter on the foreign news desk covering controversial topics such as gay rights and the refugee crisis; and the third was a correspondent writing long-form reportage and interviews.
When faced with criticism, some bluntly told commenters that they were wrong, or ridiculed their assertion by calling it “laughable”. Doing this risks inflaming the discussion, but they sensed this kind of reply was in keeping with the spirit of online discussions: animated verbal conflict is acceptable there.
The same goes in many well-established media genres: heated debates, as television and radio reporters have long known, make for very good viewing and listening.
Denník N’s “polemicising” journalists took on a distinct “discursive identity” in their comments, a style they would never indulge as newspaper reporters (unless they were writing opinion pieces). In other words, they recognised the characteristics of a genre and adapted their own discourse accordingly.
Just as I’m using a genre-specific form of writing in this article (which differs from the style of my book, though it’s still based on or derived from it), I witnessed astute journalists at Denník N treating discussions as a distinct genre, one that is only now emerging. It challenges them to learn to talk credibly in poorly scripted situations, ones that journalism school doesn’t really touch.
As journalists must now juggle several digital channels of communication – both to retain relevance with an online audience (for marketing purposes) and to explore new forms of dialogue between information-producers and information-consumers (from a democratic perspective) – this is an increasingly important skill.
Not commenters: contributors
According to French philosopher Joëlle Zask, participation is contributory if each participant in a situation retains the possibility of making and claiming a difference through their intervention. The contributor is thus valued for his or her singularity.
So here’s a modest proposal: let’s call a person who discusses the news a “contributor”, instead of using less dignified terms such as commenter or user.
The term is a useful boundary object; it allows journalists and their increasingly critical publics to meet on neutral ground without equalising their status.
By encouraging journalists to consider their “below-the-line” critics as contributors, we can challenge them to think of their own published texts as provisional accounts, always open to outside additions, clarifications, objections and corrections.
But by asking journalists to think of themselves as contributors when they engage with a critical online audience in comments or on social media, we give them a sort of professional shield. They can more easily value the time they spend in the dialogue, while still treating it as different from and subsidiary to their main role as writer, safe in the knowledge that they are not tacitly endorsing the claim that we are all journalists now.
And if we agree that these contributors – both readers and journalists – can constructively exchange, clicking on the comment button becomes a much less frightening experience.