U.S. Science Journalists' Views and Uses of Online Reader Comments: A Qualitative Study
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Online comments have provided a forum for readers to interact with one another on the websites of newspapers, magazines, and other publications. Readers have come to expect comments, but many people, including some journalists, have expressed negative views toward this form of user-generated content. Comments, particularly anonymous comments, have a reputation for being disproportionately uncivil and digressive. The lack of civility has become a challenge for media organizations, some of which do not have substantial resources to dedicate to moderating reader comments. In the realm of science journalism, recent research has suggested that uncivil comments affect readers’ perceptions of science-related issues. As a result, the magazine Popular Science disbanded comments, igniting controversy over the value of comments for readers and journalists. Although considerable research has examined online reader comments, most studies have focused on the content of comments rather than readers’ or journalists’ attitudes toward them. Moreover, studies that have investigated journalists’ views of comments have obtained primarily the perspectives of generalist journalists working for newspapers. Therefore, the main objectives of this thesis research were 1) to understand U.S. science journalists’ overall attitudes toward reader comments and 2) to learn whether and, if so, how science journalists use reader comments. To achieve these objectives, I conducted nine one-to-one semi-structured interviews with science journalists working for U.S.-based newspapers and magazines. Overall, the science journalists who participated in this study expressed mixed views toward comments. However, even participants with negative views of comments indicated that they support readers’ ability to comment or noted benefits of comments, such as their potential to increase website traffic. Most participants said that they have used comments in some capacity. These uses included gauging reader reaction to a story or topic, detecting errors, identifying potential sources, and generating story ideas. The findings of this study suggest that some science journalists support comments and use them for various purposes. These results could be useful for media organizations that are currently questioning the overall value of comments for their publications.
Schaefer, Mary Elizabeth (2014). U.S. Science Journalists' Views and Uses of Online Reader Comments: A Qualitative Study. Master's thesis, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from