To read or not to read comments: Understanding the persuasive firepower of user discussion

The comments you read after a story can be as important as the story itself. Some folks skip the journalism altogether and just jump to the online comments. Whether you find this to be a painful trend in leading the public away from accurate information or a hopeful sign of an engaged electorate, it is undeniable that comments are persuasive. But they are persuasive for unexpected reasons.

This is where my current research for the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute comes in. Which types of comments are more persuasive and to what end?

The answer, at least in our first effort to figure this out, is anecdotal comments carry more weight than comments citing scientific facts. So, now we’re planning to take a deeper dive into the topic.

The types of comments I’m studying are in spaces where feedback and dialogue occur, including actual news sites and social media sites. Right now, I am particularly focused on comments attached to science and health stories.

Here’s the thing to know about communication research; it is often agonizingly incremental. We might work for months on a single experiment about how audiences react to information only to move the needle one infinitesimal notch in a very specific field of study. The one notch ideally informs the next set of experiments, the next set of notches.

Along those the lines, the notch that we have already accomplished was published last year in Climatic Change. In this experiment, Rachel Young at the University of Iowa, Roma Subramanian at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and I discovered that anecdotal comments after a story about environmental health impacts of climate change made certain people think differently about the veracity and personal significance of the story than did comments mentioning scientific evidence.

More specifically, readers who identified themselves to be politically conservative were likely to think the story was credible and feel more at risk from climate change if they read comments that referred to anecdotal evidence. These readers who read the more scientific-sounding comments had the opposite reaction and thought the story was less credible and that they were not at risk from climate change.

You might be thinking — why didn’t they test out this commenting variation on a subject less polarizing than climate change? Ding! Ding! Ding! Our next step is to test comment types on less-political health and science story topics with the support of RJI. Less-controversial story topic ideas to test might include the following: allergies, gut health, drinking water, technological waste, landfills and drones. If you have any suggestions for less-political health and science story ideas, I welcome them at

I know we are all concerned about fake news, filter bubbles and alternative facts. But facts are only part of how people make decisions on whether to believe any given piece of information. Whether people connect to the information emotionally is part of the equation.

Much persuasion of citizens and of policymakers occurs in the comments, and we need a better understanding of these variables that can also undermine quality journalism.


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