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Comments in News, Democracy Booster or Journalistic Nightmare: Assessing the Quality and Dynamics of Citizen Debates in Catalan Online Newspapers

Pere Masip, Javier Díaz Noci, David Domingo, Josep Lluís Micó, Carles Ruiz

Last modified: 2010-06-03


Comments in news is the most popular feature for audience participation in online news sites. For citizens, it is a very simple way to react to current events and discuss about them, right after reading the story. For journalists is a very comfortable way to open-up their websites to participation, as it frames the audience as audience and does not challenge the professional identity of journalism (Domingo et al., 2008; Thurman & Hermida, 2008).

While the attitudes of journalists towards audience participation have been already researched in Catalonia (Masip & Micó, 2009), confirming the cautious and reluctant attitude found in other countries (Singer et al., forthcoming), there was no empirical evidence regarding the quality of the contributions of the audience, a crucial aspect to evaluate the significance of User Generated Content (UGC) to journalism. Professionals are usually worried about the hate-speech and lack of constructive discussions in news comments.

This research project takes a critical and normative standpoint regarding public debate in order to approach the analysis of comments in news. Beyond the hype of discourses welcoming Web 2.0 as the rebirth of direct democracy, we argue for a performative analysis of online conversations in order to assess the actual quality of the debates promoted by participatory journalism. Many theorists point out that Web 2.0 fosters communication, but not necessarily fruitful political debate. We use normative principles based on the work of Habermas (1984) as a demanding benchmarking ground for comments in news.

The research project attempts a multi-perspective approach in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the quality, dynamics and management strategies of comments on news in Catalan online newspapers.

The triangulation of methods in this study includes the quantitative analysis of comment dynamics, the quantitative and qualitative analysis of the content of comments, interviews with online editors regarding their UGC management strategies, and document analysis of the ethical and legal norms for audience participation in the studied websites. The sample includes seven online newspapers: La Vanguardia, El Periódico, Avui, El Punt, Segre, Diari de Tarragona and Diari de Girona. The first four print editions are distributed in all Catalonia, while the last three have a smaller regional target.

A composite week created by a random selection of different days of the week during a month was the basis to select the sample of comments. All comments posted on news between midnight and 8pm at the first ten stories on the homepage, politics, sports, opinion, most-read and most-voted sections were counted. Comments on the first story in each of the sections were captured for the content analysis.

There were huge differences regarding the quantity of contents among websites, with La Vanguardia having several news with around 1,000 comments and Diari de Tarragona and El Punt hardly surpassing a total of 5 comments per day in all the stories. Segre did not currently allow comments on news, but it was included in the interviews in order to acknowledge their rationale to quit this common UGC practice after three months of testing it out.

Quantitative content analysis to assess the frequency of terms indicating conflict or consensus was performed with adequate software, and twelve stories were selected for qualitative analysis. On one hand, in order to facilitate cross-comparison in the dynamics of audience conversations across websites we selected the story published by all the online newspapers which collected most comments overall (dealing with the detention of some Catalan politicians accused of corruption). As a control sample of the content of comments we also selected the most commented story among the most read in each website.

Qualitative analysis was aimed at assessing the quality of debates based on Habermas' (1984) principles of communicative action. We evaluated if there was dialogue among participants, if they accepted the legitimacy of each other to contribute, if they adopted or backed the positions of others or, instead, attacked them or their ideas. The conclusions of this analysis are still pending, and we intend to present them in the final version of the paper.

In order to interpret the results, we considered crucial to understand the framework within which participation is happening. We analyzed the legal texts of the websites and the instructions to participants, if available. The online newspapers are very cautious and restrictive in their contracts with readers, trying to keep clear that opinions are the responsibility of each user, even if Spanish legislation holds the editor of a publication responsible of anything that is published within it.

We also interviewed the editor-in-chief of the online newspapers in order to assess the motivations they had to open up their websites to audience comments, their management strategies and their perceptions regarding the quality of audience contributions and how do they change or challenge journalistic practices and values.


Domingo, D., Quandt, T., Heinonen, A., Paulussen, S., Singer, J., Vujnovic, M. (2008) Participatory journalism practices in the media and beyond: an international comparative study of initiatives in online newspapers. Journalism Practice, 2(3), 680-704.

Habermas, J. (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action. Boston: Beacon.

Masip, P.; Micó, J.L. (coord.) 2009) La convergència comunicativa a la premsa local i comarcal: noves perspectivas per a la informació. Barcelona: Associació Catalana de la Premsa Comarcal.-

Singer, J.B., Hermida, A., Domingo, D., Quandt, T., Heinonen, A., Paulussen, S., Reich, Z., Vujnovic, M.(forthcoming) Audience Participation in Online Newspapers: Guarding Open Gates. New York: Routledge.

Thurman, N. and Hermida, A. (2008) A clash of cultures: The integration of user-generated content within professional journalistic frameworks at British newspaper websites. Journalism Practice 2(3).

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