What happens when journalists participate in the sometimes frightening comments section beneath their articles? This is one of the questions that I tried to answer in my earlier book, Discussing The News: The Uneasy Alliance of Participatory Journalists and the Critical Public.
Traditional Newspaper Culture does not encourage journalists to engage their readers. As a researcher, I was excited to see an effort made by the newly founded Slovak newspaper Dennik n to promote a conversational relationship between journalists and readers.
The newspaper has its headquarters in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. The newspaper was founded by senior editors from Slovakia’s second most-read daily, SME, who left to protest when a financial firm suspected of political influence or corruption bought a 50% share in the paper in September 2014.
Half of the newsroom joined them in this new venture, which began as an online-only project. In January 2015, they started a five-day-a-week print edition.
Slovakian newspaper_Dennik N’s_ newsroom. www.dennikn.sk
Participation and editorial freedom
Dennik n uses a subscription model to counter the rise in media oligarchs throughout Central Europe. This approach is seen as an important condition for editorial freedom and as a promising business strategy in Slovakia, where the internet penetration rate is 85% and the press is free.
Readers in this country, with over 5 million residents, are avid news consumers. A 2015 survey conducted by my research found that 72% of respondents actively participated in the dissemination of news via social networks as well as on newspaper websites. According to the 2016 Digital News Report, Slovakia is the top EU nation in terms of comments on news websites.
Slovakia: FOCUS poll of 1,004 adults in December 2015. Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016.
By developing a close relationship with its audience, Dennik n hoped to counteract the chronic dependency of media organisations upon institutional or private investors with conflicting interests. This philosophy was naturally extended to include participation, which encourages readers and makes the media more independent.
Newspapers encouraged their journalists to not only read but also respond to the comments made on their articles. They did, in varying degrees.
Journalists respond to journalism
After analysing the exchanges and speaking to journalists, it became clear that certain types of comments were either over- or underestimated by journalists.
The majority of respondents preferred comments on journalism. The readers who commented on editorial decisions – errors, headlines, and accusations of bias – rather than the article’s theme, were more likely get a reply.
The journalist’s responses were based on a repertoire of arguments. When they responded, they used either process arguments or authority arguments. Andrew Abbott describes these strategies in his The System of Professions.
Journalist reacts to an error message. www.dennikn.sk
In the screenshot, a reporter thanked a reader who spotted a typo. He then explained that the report had been published “two minute after the official statement of the President arrived”. The reference to the pressure of time that online newspapers face when they deal with breaking news shows that sometimes orthographic accuracy is sacrificed for speed.
It’s what is called a “process argument,” in which the author gives an insight into conditions for the production of the article. It is logical to assume that people will be more accepting of results if they have a greater understanding of the process.
The second type is the argument of authority. Journalists will, whenever possible, omit their own voices and refer to more credible authorities when commenting on articles they have written. To support the information or interpretations in their piece, they may quote more extensively one of the sources, link to a scientific article, official report or statistical database or cite an opinion poll.
Slovak journalists have used discussion to hold themselves accountable in both authority and process arguments. They acted almost like readers’ editors, or ombudsmen.
Sometimes, they took another track. Some writers went beyond the neutrality of journalists and their usual distance and shifted from facts to interpretations. They threw or took up polemical gauntlets, and got into argument.
Dennik N first print edition. www.dennikn.sk
Three of the most frequent doers had very different backgrounds. One was a journalist who covered controversial issues such as the refugee crisis and gay rights. Another was a reporter working on the foreign desk, covering topics like the refugee issue and controversial gay rights. The third was a long-form correspondent writing interviews and reporting.
Some people, when confronted with criticism, told the critics that they were wrong or called their statements “laughable.” This could potentially inflame the discussion, but the participants felt that this was the right way to respond.