Moderating uncivil comments hurts trust in News


Uncivil comments can not only taint the perception of a news site, they also affect the moderators. A study by the Centre for Media Engagement (by Martin J. Riedl, Gina Masullo Chen and Kelsey Whipple) has found that uncivil comments:

  • Hurt moderator trust in the news outlet.
  • Made moderators more emotionally exhausted.

The problem

News organizations are increasingly turning to comment moderators – or their own journalists or other employees – to remove uncivility that often mars online discussions.

The CME project considered two main questions in the often-troublesome task of comment moderation:

  • Does moderating uncivil comments decrease how much moderators trust the news site?
  • What emotional toll does moderating uncivil comments have on the moderators?

Key findings

Moderators who focused exclusively on uncivil content:

  • Perceived the news outlet they were working for as less trustworthy
  • Were more emotionally exhausted
  • Were less satisfied with the task of moderation
  • Had a less immersive work experience. An immersive work experience is called a sense of “flow” in a task that makes it feel less effortful.

Solutions for Newsrooms

CME results suggest that moderating only uncivil comments diminishes perceived trust in a news outlet. It also affects moderators on a very personal level, leading to emotional exhaustion and a less positive work experience.

Considering most comment moderators work for much longer than the 24-minute shift used in this experiment, it’s particularly notable that moderating even for a short time had effects. The toll of moderating uncivil comments may be much stronger for moderators putting in several hours or a full day.

News organizations should focus on keeping the tone in comments sections civil, so less moderation of uncivil comments is needed. News sites can do this by having journalists engage in comments sections and by encouraging higher-quality conversations.

Breaking up the task can make moderation less harmful for workers. They may have a better experience on the job if they moderate a mix of civil and uncivil comments, rather than focusing exclusively on uncivil content. CME  also suggests that comment moderators be given other tasks along with comment moderation to improve the experience.

The experiment

Participants were asked to moderate 78 comments each – a task that took them on average 24 minutes. They were told they were moderating the comments for an unidentified news site and were randomly assigned to moderate either all uncivil comments, all civil comments, or a mix of civil and uncivil comments.

For each comment, participants decided if it should be accepted for publication on a news site or rejected based on how uncivil the comment was. Then they answered a series of questions about how much they trusted the news outlet, as well as how they felt about having to do this task.

CME found that moderating only uncivil comments led to negative effects.

Specifically, moderating only uncivil comments:

Diminished trust in the news outlet.

  • People who moderated only uncivil comments viewed the news organization as less trustworthy8 than those who moderated only civil comments or a mix of civil and uncivil.

Took an emotional toll.

  • People who moderated exclusively uncivil comments were more emotionally exhausted  and less satisfied with the task than those who moderated only civil comments or a mix of civil and uncivil.
  • People who moderated exclusively uncivil comments felt less immersed in their work than those who moderated only civil comments or a mix of civil and uncivil. Download the complete report here


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