Sometimes, our comments fields boil over with outraged, critical visitors, for example when reporting on a controversial subject, criticism of us as journalists, deliberate misunderstanding or attempts to discredit the newsroom/department. This is rarely desirable but it can never be entirely avoided. Reactions from the audience, even if they are critical or angry, are not evil. They are an acknowledgement that the work of the newsroom/department generates audience engagement, and are a good starting point when you roll up your sleeves to tackle listeners’/readers’/viewers’ viewpoints.
However, they have changed in terms of both form and content with the advent of the internet and social media. Consequently, Swedish Radio’s newsrooms/departments need to have a different way of dealing with them and be prepared when storms of comments occur. The severity of a storm/crisis can be graded rather like weather forecasts:
Level 1. There is a permanent level 1 warning. We must be able to cope with this with our normal staffing and normal, continuous presence in comments fields.
Level 2. Typical level 2 warnings involve controversial political guests, features and posts about issues related to minorities, and reporting on immigration and integration. A level 2 warning is handled with normal staffing, a high level of preparedness and rapid action.
Level 3. A high-profile colleague who clearly crosses the line on social media or makes a serious editorial mistake is an example of a level 3 warning, with criticism more or less exploding and a large number of people participating and propagating the criticism widely from the start (extremely fast escalation). This requires additional resources and rapid action and involves the managerial level immediately.
The public have hundreds of ways of criticising and praising us, and don’t hesitate to share their views with others on social media. Consequently, a newsroom/department faces different, stricter demands when it comes to answering questions, defending their journalism and, where necessary, eating humble pie. The audience has also become more intolerant. For every wasted half hour, every unanswered tweet or status update on Facebook, the risk increases of criticism being snapped up, accumulating and being spread by more people.
A newsroom/department that fails to respond to criticism risks undermining the trust it enjoys with the audience in the long term. Compare this with a company’s customer service department that answers just one out of 50 phone calls from customers with queries or from dissatisfied, frustrated customers. The 49 who are ignored would justifiably be angry and look elsewhere. They would probably also tell their friends and acquaintances about the poor level of service.
A newsroom/department that lets the audience in on social media also has to cope with the aggravating circumstance that anyone can see the 49 unanswered comments, understand the questioner’s frustration and share them. As we write about in the section on Dialogue, you never just respond to one comment. You are also responding to the gallery of lurkers.
In the shorter term, the newsroom/department will appear as either arrogant or defensive (and cowardly, in the worst case scenario).
If you work in online journalism, you will encounter various types of criticism and various types of critic:
Reasonable criticism, presented courteously.
Reasonable criticism, presented emotionally at high pitch, possibly spiced with expletives and profanities. Avoid the mistake of routinely dismissing this type of critic as a troll or online hater. A response often helps neutralise the tone, and it becomes easier to discuss the subject matter.
Unreasonable criticism. This may involve a misunderstanding or someone deliberately wanting to discredit the newsroom/department. It should be investigated, with the risk of errors being propagated.
Provocation and trolling. If a person breaks the comments rules established by the newsroom/department, highlight this and remove the comment. However, do not routinely dismiss someone because the person expresses themselves provocatively or ‘like a troll’. This attitude may be concealing something that ought to be discussed.
It is also important for the newsroom/department to decide from the start how it will handle a specific situation so that everyone involved agrees on the action to take:
The critics are right. The newsroom/department may have made a mistake, which needs to be explained and apologised for from the start.
The critics are both right and wrong. There may be a misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up so that the critics and the newsroom/department agree on the basic premises.
The critics are wrong. If this is the newsroom’s/department’s opinion (it may involve a deliberate misunderstanding or part of a feature that has been taken out of context), crisis management is mainly about defending your own journalism. The best strategy here is often courteous, clear and proactive moderation.
When, in January 2017, P4 Jämtland (one of SR's local radio stations, based in Östersund) invited police officer Niklas Daoson to be a regular guest on a radio programme, there was immediate, sharp criticism from several quarters, as Daoson was also an active Social Democrat local politician.
The newsroom/department decided that the critics were right as this jeopardised the credibility of Swedish Radio, and they took action in several areas: Daoson was replaced with another police officer (the article on sverigesradio.se was edited and new information was added). The newsroom/department prepared a statement, explaining what had happened and that it was a mistake. It then responded to criticism on social media, both in its own comments fields and those of its critics.
The result was that a storm of comments was averted and the situation blew over fairly soon after the newsroom/department took fast, clear action. The fact that P4 Jämtland also admitted its mistake elicited the respect of even some of its severest critics.
Newsrooms/Departments need good procedures to avoid serious storms of comments occurring that are difficult to manage. Swedish Radio has drawn up a simple checklist for this purpose. It is applicable to minor instances such as individual opinions on an editorial mistake as well as major instances, where a large number of people react at the same time on several different platforms.
In the worst case scenario, a storm of criticism can turn into a series of smouldering fires at risk of flaring up long after the event in question
Anticipate. Sometimes you know in advance that something you and the newsroom/department are going to do will engender questions and criticism. This is often the case with a controversial news topic. In such cases, it is often a good idea to try and anticipate what the audience will say/ask, and formulate responses that can be used to guide the dialogue with the audience. See also point 5.
Deploy enough staff. It is not unusual for a storm to blow up on several different platforms at the same time: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Each platform has its own logic, and the propagation of a critical post is usually greatest on Facebook (the biggest platform with the most users, in the case of Swedish Radio).
If a feature or an editorial mistake engenders extensive reactions, it is a good idea to first establish quickly where and how much people are talking about it, and then to decide whether more resources are needed to respond to comments and tweets. Is one social media editor enough, or do you need to deploy two or three people to keep up?
Provide information. When you have completed your initial appraisal of the extent of the criticism, it is important to quickly inform those who need to know. The editor-in-chief needs to know as much as possible to deploy the right staff and decide how the team will respond. In a large corporation like Swedish Radio, with hundreds of newsrooms and departments, it is likely that people other than just the newsroom/department in question will receive questions and critical opinions on the topic in dispute.
Decide who will respond. Who will respond actually means two things. The editor-in-chief decides how the criticism will be met, usually in consultation with the newsroom/department. The editor-in-chief might also write in the comments, but it is often the social media editor who writes the response. Sometimes it is an advantage for the editor-in-chief to respond to comments. This gives the responses gravitas and authority, and the audience get the right information straight from the horse’s mouth.
But often the main task of the editor-in-chief is to maintain an overview, particularly if there is a major storm of criticism across several platforms, and delegate the task of responding to the right person. In other words, the social media editor. To avoid any confusion and too many cooks spoiling the broth, it is essential for everyone to agree on the approach.
Prepare an FAQs document. It is often possible to identify a number of frequently asked questions in a storm of criticism. Write them down in FAQs (a living document that can be added to if new questions arise) and formulate responses to help the people dealing with the comments. However, responses should not be copied directly from such a document. They should be formulated by the person responding, since copy/paste responses are like a red rag to a bull. The audience quickly identify such responses and are often made even angrier by them.
If the same types of question and criticism recur again and again, it may also be a good idea to publish your FAQs, for example on the website of the newsroom/department and publish links to it if the pressure from the audience is high.
If what is causing outrage or engendering questions is something that was broadcast on radio (or TV), you might also consider transcribing the section criticised and publishing it. In many cases, people have not actually heard or seen the feature and are reacting to someone else’s reaction, or to a false description of what was said that is being widely propagated.
Respond. As soon as possible. Rage can rapidly accumulate in a storm of criticism. If there is a delay in the newsroom/department responding, the storm often divides into two: those who criticise the subject matter and those who criticise the delay. Responding may also mean not having a response. Before the newsroom/department has decided how to meet the criticism, it can gain from telling the public that it will make a statement when it knows more.
A few important points when responding to criticism: Don’t lie, try not to cover up a mistake. If the newsroom/department has made a mistake, it is always a good idea to admit it and apologise if the situation so requires.
Finally: standing tall in a storm is hard work, but it is essential. The aim of managing storms on social media is not to win the debate, to convince the critics that you are right, or to get them to change their opinion. The aim is to show that you and the newsroom/department are listening and care about the audience’s reactions, and that you defend your journalism.
At the end of the day, the angry critics will be hopefully less angry and you will be seen differently, possibly with just as much disagreement, but with a “thanks for responding”.