Public dialogue is the engine of journalism on social media. When a newsroom/department addresses the audience on the internet, there is also a tacit agreement to communicate with the audience. There is a lot to gain from not just being a megaphone but also listening to the audience’s thoughts, opinions and views on the journalism we create. We can get new angles on a story, we can find new people to interview and do research – in the past and in real time.
A newsroom/department that works consciously and methodically towards building networks on social media can reflect minorities who would otherwise have been difficult to reach outside the internet, or find and cover sensitive issues from the "inside", for example through a closed patient group on Facebook.
10 SIMPLE STEPS TO GOOD DIALOGUE
Do not leave the comment fields unattended.
A thumbs up or a heart is not an adequate response.
Do not reply scathingly or sarcastically to criticism in comments. Think about the tone of your newsroom/department, and what impression your comment will make.
Do not avoid difficult comments.
Use the Comment Rules. Do not allow racism, hate speech and personal attacks to slip through.
Ask follow-on questions and counter questions.
Be transparent and consistent.
Answer for the gallery (the people who read the comments, but do not necessarily write any themselves).
Only ask questions if you want to hear the answers.
Discuss audience dialogue with your manager and your colleagues.
During this comment section quarrel Nicklas asks if the moderator is asleep. The moderator responds: "I'm here now, but during the weekends we are not working."
DIFFERENT TYPES OF COMMENTS FIELDS
When you work with audience dialogue on social media, it is easy to forget the comments fields that are not quite as obvious. We see four main types:
Actual comment fields. That is, the fields where the newsroom/department and the audience usually meet, directly under posts on a page or in a Facebook group.
Secondary fields. This includes reviews on a Facebook page, if you have this function switched on, and visitor posts, where visitors can write to or tag the newsroom’s/department’s name (displayed separately from the news feed).
Hidden comments fields, that is instant messages (DM/PM) on the social media platform, such as Facebook’s Messenger.
Twitter threads. Twitter lacks the comments field systems of Facebook and Instagram, which means that you cannot delete tweets written to or about the newsroom/department, and so you cannot apply Swedish Radio’s Comments Rules (read more about them below) in the same way as on other platforms. On the other hand, you should regard response threads under a tweet as comments fields because what is written there can impact your newsroom/department and its credibility. Therefore, on Twitter you should never let hate speech, lies and personal attacks pass without raising an objection, just as you would on the other platforms.
THREE TYPES YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE
A silent newsroom/department that only reads and removes comments that break the rules when required: a ‘megaphone’. This can be perceived as nonchalant or defensive, that we do not care about what is written in our comment fields.
The parrot who responds in the same way to everyone – "thank you for your comment" or "thank you for sharing". The same wording over and over again risks signalling that we don’t take the audience’s questions and opinions seriously.
The robot, which is similar to the parrot. The robot responds with a template answer, like a customer service organisation. A more personal tone often works better using a language that is closer to ordinary conversation and does not become too formal or officious.
Establishing a dialogue with your audience of journalistic value begins even before publication. The content and format of posts on social media that you want the audience to react to constitute the pillars for this dialogue. Think about and decide in advance:
Journalistic idea. What do you want to achieve with the post? Do you want to stimulate debate and discussion? Do you want the audience to share their own experiences on the topic you have chosen? Think through all of this before posting.
Clear angle. The post should be as clear as possible so that the audience can understand what it is about and what we want to discuss. You could sometimes end the post with a question to the audience to make the topic for discussion more concrete. One advantage of putting questions in your posts is that it makes it extra clear to the audience when and why the off-topic rule is applied, where you delete comments that don’t have anything to do with the topic. Swedish Radio is not to use click bait.
Editorial presence. The most important thing is that the newsroom/department demonstrates to the audience that you are listening to and reading what they write from the start, for example by asking follow-on questions and counter questions. An invisible newsroom/department indicates disinterest or, in the worst case, that the comments field is not monitored and that users have free rein to write anything they want.
When you formulate your post, you can also ask yourself the question: Would I want to write something in this field? Do I understand the topic? Is it stimulating? Trust your own gut feeling. If in doubt, or if the answer is no, it is better to change the post: reword the text or change the angle. Maybe even choose a completely different topic. But if the answer is yes, you will have given yourself a head start in the comments field and in the audience dialogue.
WRITE FOR THE GALLERY
In the best of all possible worlds, your comments fields will be like a summer picnic where everyone is happy, constructive and harmonious. That is rarely the case, however. Quite often, one or more people will post sarcastic, malignant or disparaging comments – comments that do not violate our rules but border on doing so. It can be hard to do, but resist the urge to let such comments stand without a response or to delete them because it feels ‘too hard’ to do anything else. A person who enters the comments field with an aggressive attitude and unpleasant tone is destructive even for the silent audience who do not directly contribute themselves, but only read what others write: the gallery.
In internet culture, people talk about the 1 per cent rule, which says that only one per cent of website users or a community actually contribute content: the other 99 per cent read but don’t write anything (they are termed lurkers). So you can count on your gallery being the majority of your audience. It is your responsibility as moderator to handle the trickier comments so that other followers doing the right thing feel safe to share their thoughts and opinions. If you make it clear what applies in your comments field, lurkers are more likely to be encouraged to start participating in the conversation.
Here is a summary of what should be removed according to Swedish Radio’s Comments Rules:
Off-topic. Perhaps the most useful rule for the moderator. If you have been clear about what the conversation is to be about and you have established a clear angle, you can remove everything else. Here, it is important to be consistent. If the post is about the pros and cons of hunting wolves and you get both racist and anti-racist remarks, it is important to remove both varieties because neither are on topic. Allowing positive off-topic comments to remain, while deleting dubious and “difficult” off-topic comments in the same thread, is inconsistent and is often experienced as cowardly by the audience.
Racism, xenophobia, sexism homophobia and transphobia. Hate speech comments are to be removed as soon as possible. If the comment is not explicitly racist or hate speech but has a clear undertone and you feel unsure: search online for accepted definitions or get help from your manager and your colleagues.
Links. A comment that contains a link but nothing more is not permitted. You should be able to understand a comment without needing to click on to any other sites. A comment with a link to a source or to in-depth commentary is permitted. Make it a habit to always click on such links yourself to review their content.
Commercial messages and spam. The same rules as for a radio broadcast apply on social media.
Comments on the moderation. Sometimes the audience might feel that we moderate unfairly or incomprehensibly. Of course we can discuss this with anyone who wants to discuss it, but always direct the person to ask such questions by email.
Lies, threats, personal attacks and gossip.
In the past there was a rule to maintain a "good tone", a rule which was removed because it was arbitrary and open to interpretation when applied to the entire corporation. Instead it is up to each newsroom/department and ultimately each moderator to determine what the limits are for a tone that is acceptable.
It is permitted to be angry and upset and use profanities and express oneself strongly in our comments fields, but it is the moderator’s task to assess when this is affecting the comments field negatively and to take a clear stand when anyone approaches or goes beyond the limits that the editors have agreed.
The immediate effect when you take a stand against unpleasant comments is often that you receive an apology as an answer. The vast majority of people are not trying to be perceived as sarcastic or unpleasant, just as much on the internet as in a tea room or on a bus.
TIPS AND ADVICE
Engage. The first step to improving discussions on social media is to have the courage to engage with and turn things around. Sometimes it is necessary to have both positive and negative views in a discussion to get it going. Ask questions and show interest (without of course taking sides: the normal public service broadcaster principles also apply to comment fields of course). Clarify perspectives and nuances, and never allow a hate mob to have the last word or to attack individuals. Use the Comments Rules and be transparent.
The principle of generosity. Although it can be difficult, it is always good to try to understand what the other person is really saying or trying to say. In writing, many of our communications signals such as facial expressions, tone of voice and body language are simply not there, and leave some comments open to different interpretations. That is why it is often a good idea to start out by thinking that the other person has good intentions when it’s difficult to interpret a comment. Ask the person to clarify before becoming defensive. Sometimes you will have misinterpreted the situation.
Avoid getting emotional. Take a few deep breaths and review your response before you press Enter. Plenty of discussions are well served this. It allows you to review what you think, what you don’t think, how you yourself might be perceived and what has not yet been cleared up.
Correct factual errors. With the aid of statistics and links, you can often correct simple factual errors. This can sometimes lead the debate towards more objectivity, provided that this is done in a pleasant way. Simple misunderstandings have a tendency to snowball on the internet. Correcting small errors may seem rather pointless, but remember that clarifications can have good outcomes and steer the debate in the right direction.
Identify straw men. A straw man argument is a rhetorical technique and means that the debater creates a caricature (a straw man) of the opponent’s proposition (argument) and then attacks and argues against this straw man rather than the opponent’s actual argument. If people in the comments field attack each other using the straw man technique, help them by bringing the discussion back to what has actually been said in the thread.
Clarify what is being debated. In a lively comments field, the discussion can be about a lot of different things at the same time. When that happens, it’s important for you as the moderator to figure out what is being debated here. What is currently not part of the debate? A debate can benefit from this kind of clarification – “right now we are discussing different things here”.