Professor takes on wild west of the internet: The comments section

Due to increased cyber bullying, journalists are changing their strategies for online commenting on their websites and social media pages, according to research done by a University of Connecticut journalism professor. 

“It’s an interesting conundrum for journalists because we are champions of free speech but you can’t just leave it (the conversation) open because then there is no structure and it’s caused a lot of problems on a lot of websites,” assistant journalism professor Marie Shanahan said.

Assistant professor Marie Shanahan of UConn's journalism department. (Courtesy/UConn Journalism)

Shanahan has been monitoring trends and looking at different ways news organizations are dealing with open comments because it’s not always successful, she said.

The most successful way to limit hurtful or hateful comments on the internet, Shanahan believes, is to have an actual human monitor. This is a practice used by bigger news organizations, like the New York Times. However, this is also the most expensive way to monitor online, she said. 

“There is a more intelligent population that reads the New York Times compared to a site like Gawker (a gossip news site) where comments are part of their business model. They are just as fun, outrageous or enraging to read as the articles,” Shanahan said.

Another way that news organizations have dealt with this issue is restricting access to commenting. For example, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announced that only subscribers could comment on articles, Shanahan said.

“Comments really become a toxic wasteland of hate and racism and sexism. Is that really helpful to anybody?” Shanahan said.

These hateful comments have also lead to, what Shanahan calls, a “participation inequality.” Shanahan said that studies have shown that there is a decreasing participation of women in online commenting.

“The online atmosphere is so angry that more and more women chose not to comment; especially not in those big forums which is bad,” Shanahan said. 

Comments really become a toxic wasteland of hate and racism and sexism. Is that really helpful to anybody?
— Marie Shanahan, assistant journalism professor

The ethical argument, Shanahan said, is that if a journalist hosts a conversation online, they should be responsible in being involved in the conversation. 

“Journalists should be responsible for monitoring comments online because personal attacks or hateful comments undermine the facts of the story,” Matt Schneck, sixth-semester journalism and communication major, said.

Shanahan received a $5,000 public discourse grant at UConn to do an externship over the summer, which will ultimately be part of a book. Shanahan said she plans to work at a local, online news organization and “test the variables” when it comes to online comments.

“If I get involved in the conversation or correct something, what happens to the comment stream?” Shanahan said. “In opinion piece versus news stories, do the comments differ at all or do people still think that the factual news story is opinion?” 


Emma Krueger is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.krueger@uconn.edu.