No discussion takes place in readers’ comments about digital media news

The UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country has studied the comments made by users of the three main, digital native media in Spain

  • Research

First publication date: 15/12/2021

Orge Castellano
Orge Castellano. Photos: Mitxi. UPV/EHU.

A study carried out in the UPV/EHU's Department of Journalism II has analysed audience participation and the dynamics of the discursive ethics of user comments generated in, ElEspañ and, as well as in the official social network accounts of the aforementioned media. From the analysis of readers' comments in these three digital newspapers it has been possible to conclude that the comments are not deliberative in nature.

In the Department of Journalism II at the UPV/EHU’s Faculty of Social and Communication Sciences, the journalist Orge Castellano has explored a dataset of 704 articles and a total of 98,426 comments made by readers of news published in the digital media, ElEspañ and between 1 February and 27 March 2019, plus 56,611 comments gathered from social networks (the official Twitter and Facebook accounts of these media). “This is the first study of its kind carried out in Spain, and it is also the first time that digital media have been analysed on their own," explained Orge Castellano, who has been awarded a PhD in Social Communication from the UPV/EHU. We have not included traditional print media, but the main Internet-born, digital native media. This is very interesting because their dynamics are different: they are purely digital media that exist not only due to advertising, but also due to those people who support them, who want to read them on the Internet.”

From the analysis of the sample of comments, which identified "the language used, the existence of dialogue, recognition between speakers, respectful treatment of each other, acceptance of other speakers' arguments, as well as logical and coherent aspects of the discourse present in the discussions, it has been possible to conclude" that "the comments are not deliberative in nature. 72.6 % of users only made one comment during the period under review: they comment on many news items but comment only once", added Castellano.

Digital egocentricity

"The presence of many single comments prevents a fluid conversation from taking place among readers, and fragments the discussion," he said. In Dr Castellano's opinion, "people don't want to reach consensus, they don't want to enter into a discussion; they just want to air their opinions and leave it at that. And when the conversation is segmented, there can be neither discussion nor the formation of public opinion”.

The study also reveals the poor quality profile of the discussions that take place in the comment section of the media. Most comments remain irrelevant to the topic being discussed, and a significant majority of users do not focus on the topic of the news item. Moreover, the number of users trying to enter into a discussion is small. Users rarely support another user's arguments or mention other sources or refer to them.

The difference between the data collected on social networks may be due to the effectiveness of moderation algorithms that undertake to rank low-quality content unrelated to the issue in question. The journalist points out that "in social networks there is certainly more discussion, because the comments are more filtered. Algorithms rank comments by using keywords".

Moreover, the study shows that, overall, 12.7 % of all contributions set out to discredit the authors. "It is worth noting that technological advances have facilitated the emergence of more robust, automatic moderating systems that manage to keep insults out of the comments section. However, there are still a significant number of negative comments," said Castellano.

On the whole, "journalists do not get involved in commenting on the news. There are rare exceptions where journalists get involved in the comments, provide nuance, give explanations and enter into the discussion. So the media also lose out by not paying attention to these comments. But it is true that because there is a lot of noise, they ignore it. But they don't remove the comment section because of press freedom. They believe in the precept that readers also have the freedom and the right to be able to comment, to express themselves. So they restrict themselves to regulating this space; the trend now is to regulate only the subscribers", he pointed out. Finally, Castellano stressed that "there is still a lot of work to be done regarding the study of discursive ethics, the study of interactions and the participation of people, of people in the news".

Additional information

This study comes within the framework of the PhD thesis produced by Orge Castellano (Commenting Natively: User-engagement Dynamics Below the Line within Spanish Digital Newspapers), supervised by the lecturers Koldobika Meso-Ayerdi and Simón Peña-Fernández in the Department of Journalism II of the Faculty of Social and Communication Sciences.