When Journalists go "Below the Line': comment fields at the Guardian (2006-2013)

Authors: Wright, S., Graham, T., Carson, A. and Jackson, D.

Start date: 27 July 2016

“Below the line” comment fields are one of the most popular forms of user-generated content within mainstream news media (Hermida and Thurman 2008; Jönsson and Örnebring 2011). Such spaces are important and unique because they give audiences a space to debate and discuss news content with each other–and journalists themselves–and this could, in theory, shape the practice of journalism and impact both the mediated and general public spheres. To date, research has focused on journalists’ perceptions, and these are not so welcoming. Journalists typically describe below the line comments as being offensive, poor in quality, untrustworthy, and unrepresentative of the public (Harrison 2009; Singer and Ashman 2009; Phillips 2010). But are these perceptions an accurate account of what is taking place in comment fields? Few empirical studies have analysed the nature of deliberation below the line: what is the nature of political debate, and how, if at all, do journalists engage? Graham and Wright’s (2015) case study of the Guardian’s comment fields, published in Press/Politics, found that debates were often deliberative, and that comment fields were having broadly positive effects on journalism practice (e.g. enhanced accountability, sourcing), though there was limited evidence of journalists actually participating in debates. However, the research focused on a specific event (2010 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit) and only covered a limited number of stories over a three-week period. This paper directly addresses this limitation.

This paper analyses how journalists at the Guardian participated below the line from the inception of the Guardian’s comment fields in 2006 until the end of 2013. The data is collected through both the Guardian API, and through innovative screen-scraping techniques. First, the paper quantitatively analyses the number of articles open to comment each year; the volume of comments received; and how often journalists engage. Second, the paper uses content analysis to 158 analyse all of the comments made by journalists in the random sample over the 8 year period. Here we focus on the function of comments: does the comment seek new information/source, defend their journalism, make a correction, update the story/add further information, or promote their work? Finally, the paper analyses what happens when journalists comment: do they receive replies, and does it improve the tone of debate? The paper finds significant variations in both the volume and functions of comments between the different journalists, and that often people do not engage in debates with journalists.

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