‘Show up’: Why (and how) journalists should respond to reader comments

Your article has been published and shared widely. The comments section is lighting up. Do you respond? 

Engaging with reader comments might not be high on every journalist’s priority list, but it’s an important part of building trust and community. By responding to comments, journalists can continue the conversation, answer follow-up questions, and even combat mis-or disinformation.  

We asked Joy Mayer, director of Trusting News, to share best practices for journalists when responding to comments online.

Why should journalists consider responding to comments?

Mayer: The comment sections connected to news stories often remind me of a poorly thrown party. Imagine you decide to have people over. You stock the bar, put on some music, and throw open the door. And then you … leave. You hope (assume?) people will be on their best behavior, and you expect to come home to a house that’s still in order.

Ridiculous, right? We count on an event’s host to connect people, to gently redirect someone who gets a bit unruly, and to call someone a cab and send them home if necessary. Everyone appreciates a host who values guest experiences. 

This is true in the comments as well. Journalists can and should play host — validating good behavior (hitting “like” on a user’s comment is so quick and simple), contributing to conversations, answering questions, and reprimanding people who are ruining the vibe. 

What are your top three tips for engaging productively with reader comments?

MayerErr on the side of responding if at all possible. Remember that you’re responding not just to the person who left the comment but to everyone else reading the thread. Show up. 

Look for chances to ask follow-up questions if people share their experiences or interest. Things like “what else do you want to know about this” or “have you seen this in your neighborhood” can lead to story ideas and sources, and they can turn the comments into a productive extension of the journalism. 

Use the comments as a chance to educate people about how you do your work. Share links to additional resources, answer questions about the reporting, and show some personality and humanity. Remind people of your mission, your ethics, how you decide what to cover, who’s on your staff …. anything that feels relevant.

What advice do you have for responding to negative feedback, trolls, or misinformation?

MayerHave a comment policy that applies anywhere you’re hosting a conversation. Be clear about what behavior you will allow and what you want to encourage. Delete comments and ban routinely — that shows respect for people who are following the rules and value civility. Remind people of your policy when you ban comments or need to step in. 

Reframe complaints as information gaps. If someone accuses you of something (“you’re only doing this story to make someone look bad” or “news should be free — you’re being greedy”), recognize that as a sign that people don’t know why you are covering it. (“Actually, we see this accountability reporting as part of our duty to taxpayers. Read more about that in our mission statement.” or “It costs a lot of money to report the news. Read more about why we depend on reader support here.”)

Defend your integrity. If you are accused of something in a comment, be present with a response. Otherwise you are ceding the conversation to your critics. Get on the record about who you are and what you do.

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