Considering theories about the public sphere, user comments on news websites are very interesting for several reasons and highly relevant for empirical research. Unlike letters to the editor, user comments are not only addressed to journalistic editors, but also to the general public. In contrast to blogs and other forms of political expression on the internet, they enable mass media participation in public discourses directly following journalistic content. At least potentially, user comments reach the same audience as the articles on news websites themselves.
Technically, comment sections create the prerequisites for deliberative interactions through the reciprocal change of addressees and speaker roles. Regardless of how many readers actually perceive user comments, they can also have an impact on the course and structures of public communication. This is because the circle of journalistic addressees follows the course of the discussion and the audience preferences expressed there in any case.
The project therefore firstly asks how extensive and with which quality users in the comment section on professional news websites discuss with each other. Secondly, explanatory framework conditions are included that can promote or hinder the interaction between users and the degree of deliberation: Influencing factors of the media organizations (e.g., journalistic and economic goals), their journalistic offerings (e.g. topics, news factors), the design of the commentary area (e.g. moderation strategies, arrangement of postings) as well as the speakers (e.g. speaker type, political position). In addition, the selection criteria used to publish user comments on news websites (input-output content analysis) will be examined. Finally, motives and strategies of (journalists in) editorial offices are identified, which illuminate the handling of user comments from a journalistic point of view.
From a methodological point of view, the innovations of the project consist first of all in capturing the scope and quality of user comments with a relational content analysis. In this way, interactions between users as a form of networking can be better depicted than in previous content analyses. Secondly, a multi-level analysis is used to map the relative influence of the framework conditions mentioned, which are surveyed both by content analysis and by means of surveys, on the extent and quality of (deliberative) interactions in terms of methodological statistics.
Principal Investigator: Prof. Dr. Ines Engelmann
Research Associate: Hanna Marzinkowski, M.A.
Duration: October 2015 to June 2019
Funding: German Research Foundation (DFG)