The Good, the Bad, and the Evil Media: Influence of Online Comments on Media Trust
Lack of trust is a prevalent issue in modern news media. As of 2021, just 26% of American adults reported having trust in national media and scholars still don’t fully understand the impact of online comments on media trust.
Why does this matter? Media trust is critical for democracies because they rely on informed participation and you don’t use what you don’t trust. Understanding what contributes to mistrust can help news organizations combat it—and understanding the impact of content created by readers rather than reporters could be key.
The comment sections of digital media sources increase media engagement online and are a pillar of online deliberation, but they can also influence readers’ perspectives of the news content, news outlet or media itself. While comment sections host both civil and uncivil comments, negative comments are more impactful. Research shows people are drawn to negativity as a result of evolution: negative information helps humans defend themselves against threats. But in comment sections, antagonization and arguments often ensue, creating a toxic atmosphere and signaling to readers that the news source itself is untrustworthy.
To better understand the impact of these comments on both consumers and newsrooms, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Public Relations Department Associate Professor and Department Chair Myiah J. Hutchens and doctoral students Ekaterina Romanova and Brittany Shaughnessy conducted two studies to determine exactly how uncivil discussions harm trust in media. Their first study aimed to answer the following questions: Will general media trust and outlet trust vary based on the nature of comments? Will participants’ intention to seek news from the outlet in the future vary based on the nature of the comments?
Results show that the nature of comments—being civil or uncivil—do indeed impact a consumer’s assessment of the media source. Participants exposed to civil comments showed higher levels of trust in media at both general and source-specific levels than those who were exposed to uncivil comments. Findings also showed that the presence of a comment section does not affect how participants perceive journalistic quality, which suggests that removing comment sections would not impact a news outlet’s reputation.
In a second study, researchers explored the following questions: Does the target of uncivil comments impact trust in the media overall, trust in the specific source used, or how a specific source is used? Results showed that uncivil comments do impact media trust overall and in specific sources, but that negative comments did not keep someone from returning to a news source. Additionally, the study showed that comments attacking the story’s author lessened trust in media overall; comments attacking the news outlet itself lessened trust in that outlet specifically; and comments attacking “the media” in general were largely ignored.
Future research should look more closely at “dark participation,” or the deliberate spread of misinformation, trolling, cyberbullying and the like. In the meantime, this study clearly shows that uncivil comments negatively impact media trust, having a comment section isn’t necessary for news outlets to maintain their reputations, and that addressing incivility in comment sections can aid in regaining media trust.
The original article, “The Good, the Bad, and the Evil Media: Influence of Online Comments on Media Trust,” was originally published only in Journalism Studies on June 8, 2023.
Authors: Myiah Hutchens, Ekaterina Romanova, Brittany Shaughnessy
This summary was written by Jessica Berube, UFCJC M.A.M.C. 2021