Online Comments Losing Voice In Favor Of Other Audience Engagement

Sep 2, 2016

Recently NPR decided to tweak something on its website.

It wasn’t the look. Instead, the national news organization of which WUSF is a member station, decided to eliminate listeners' comments on stories.

Some people hated the decision. But NPR says most of the 33 million people who visit their website don’t comment. Their public editor says in a two-month period this summer, just 4,300 users were responsible for posting about 145 comments a piece. That’s 67 percent of all NPR.org comments, according to Elizabeth Jensen, the ombudsman and public editor for NPR.

One of the most prolific writers is a man who is known simply as “Sanpete from Utah.” He was convinced to step out of his normally anonymous shell and spoke about his disappointment with Adam Ragusea, host of the public media podcast called “The Pub.”

“Having comments is a form of accountability. And having them publicly is a form of public accountability. They ought to be there where the content is,” 'Sanpete' said.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies says Pete’s got a point. But she says NPR’s decision to eliminate comments is a growing trend as media organizations find it hard to justify having staff assigned to moderate discussions where so few people are participating.

But she said there’s also a counter trend in journalism called audience engagement, the measure by which you determine how closely journalists are tied to their audiences. The more closely tied you are, McBride said, the more your audience trusts your journalism.

“And there’s a big problem with media trust. We are about as low as we have ever been since we’ve been measuring media trust.”