Most professors who had just co-written an op-ed column on their research for The New York Times might choose to dwell on that accomplishment, but not Dominique Brossard.
Instead, my conversation with Brossard last week was more focused on some humorous, spot-on commentary from a Milwaukee entertainment website affiliated with The Onion. The headline read: “Awful online comments hurt understanding of news, reports local news site filled with awful online comments.”
What exactly did Brossard, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of science communication, and her four research colleagues do that grabbed the notice of both Times’ editors and young A.V. Club Milwaukee writers?
They measured the effect of nasty online comments.
Specifically, they researched how the tone of reader comments on stories about science can distort the impressions readers have about the veracity of what was reported in the story itself.
The focus on ugly reader comments was part of their larger study first published last month in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
While the topic gained some attention in the scientific community, it grew into a mainstream national discussion last week when Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, another UW professor, co-wrote an opinion column for the Times headlined: “This story stinks.”
In it, they describe how they sampled 1,183 participants who read a fictitious news post explaining the risks and benefits of a new technology. “Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones,” though they were otherwise similar in content and length, they wrote. They called the results surprising and disturbing: “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.”
They added, “Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.”
In my interview, Brossard says there is increasing interest among scientists about how science is communicated and realization that the Internet has grown as a crucial channel.
Brossard was asked to describe their findings in mid-February at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She says an editor for Science Magazine heard them and asked her and Scheufele to write about their study for the magazine, which in turn attracted notice from the Times.
While the Times’ article provided a national audience, Brossard describes how the A.V. Club headline came about on a separate track.
She said a UW press release on the research attracted several inquiries from journalists. A writer from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel focused on the nasty comment angle “and that went totally viral,” she says, indirectly provoking the A.V. Club story. “So, good for him,” Brossard says of the Journal Sentinel reporter. “He spotted something that nobody had really reported on.”
The irony is that readers on the Journal Sentinel website quickly ripped into the item. “I don’t know if you know the Sentinel’s policy for comments,” Brossard explains. “They, basically, let people comment however they want and so we got terrible comments … offensive comments … following that story.”
So I looked for myself.
When I checked last week, there were 171 comments, including this one, which, like most of the anonymous screeds, may or may not be serious, but is typical: “I think you can take all these studies by pointy headed scientists, 99 percent of whom are socialists and communists, and stick them where the sun don’t shine. Just listen to Rush (Limbaugh) and (Sean) Hannity, and you will learn why you shouldn’t trust ‘science.’ It is all designed to let the government control every aspect of our lives.”
The A.V. Club story read in part: “As you might imagine, this story has … produced plenty of dunderheaded, distracting, and tone-deaf comments — just as the prophecy foretold! — over on the JS site.” They included rants from global warming deniers and complaints that “real science” is not taught in schools.
And so on, and so on.
Brossard welcomes the attention their research has received, if perhaps not that particular set of online comments.
“To be honest, I’m very happy with how the whole thing developed because the impulse of the piece in Science, was really to say, ‘Hey, everybody, this is important,’ ” Brossard says.
“We need to pay attention to what is happening online and so, we have, I think — because of all those different news outlets reporting on this from different points of view — started a very healthy debate.”
I turned my conversation with Brossard to the digital Capital Times. Among the ways we are evolving is to more frequently interact with readers in comments and social media, but also to remove more off-point or ugly comments.
Our intent is to raise the quality and civility of the conversation to attract new writers who tell us they now refuse to be part of what more than one has called a cesspool or something similar.
While critics will claim that monitoring comments means we cannot tolerate negative feedback, much of what we see is anonymous and sophomoric name-calling, not a disagreement on substance.
Brossard thinks the findings about science stories may apply to stories on other topics. “We truly believe that this is something that can be translated in other contexts, particularly, when the issue that’s covered in the news story is one that’s complicated and has multiple dimensions.”
Her reaction to our plan to scrutinize comments for relevance and taste? “I’m so happy to hear you say this because I’ve been speaking with different people who (think) we should stop allowing comments. I say, look, it’s a great opportunity for us to engage, where well-meaning citizens may have something important to say and can add to the discussion.”
But, she adds: “Right now, it seems that the ones that are winning the game are the ones that we call the trolls … those that come to disrupt the conversation.
“If you look at those comments that are posted on the Journal Sentinel … you’ll see that some of those comments are totally off-topic, I mean, totally off-topic. So, do they have a place in this kind of environment?”
So, I ask rhetorically, do they?
Says Brossard: “My personal view, I don’t think so. It’s like if you were in a debate, in a room, in a public forum, and somebody reads a question that’s totally unrelated, you might say, well, fair enough, but this is not the forum for this.”
She adds, “So, how can we foster social norms in the online environment that show that, ‘Hey, no, it’s not OK. This is not the place for you to bring up X and Y.’
“We don’t have that yet. It’s still the Wild West out there.”