What I found while studying news, disinformation and the audience they (mostly) share
How could someone possibly believe that?
Like many journalists and media researchers, I’ve found myself asking this question about disinformation that has gone viral via social media. Though I’ve spent years learning how and why disinformation is created, I’d never had the opportunity to explore the motivations of the people who believe and share these stories. That is what led me to do more in-depth research during my year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.
Over the course of six months, from December 2018 through the spring of 2019, I conducted in-depth interviews with nine Americans who were selected for their relationships with both disinformation and mainstream news. I had planned to interview more participants, but life circumstances got in the way.
Through these conversations, I came to the conclusion that the media industry isn’t facing a disinformation problem as much as an engagement problem. It isn’t merely the insidious and convincing nature of disinformation that drives people to consume, believe or share false news, but is also a profound disconnection from the mainstream media and how it works.
In my second quarter as a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford, I have been largely focused on my research project, which has taken me into the homes of strangers to talk to them about their relationships with news, disinformation and the communities where they live.
I always planned to approach this study not as a journalist, but as a neutral observer, combining the empathetic methods of design thinking and the analysis of the social sciences.
What I didn’t consider going in was just how much I didn’t know about what it really means to be an observer in the first place.
This past quarter, I took a sociology course called Ethnographic Methods, which I had hoped would be beneficial to helping me structure my research project to be a bit more rigorous. I was a journalist in a class of social science and communication Ph.D students and much to my surprise, while there I rediscovered some fundamental truths about journalism itself.
To put it simply, ethnography is the study of people and cultures. One might say that’s also the job of journalism, though with a less systematic approach. It is difficult to see where one might end and the other begins, as the two fields similarly approach observation, interviewing and how they report back what they’ve found.
But one thing ethnography seems to do a lot better is analyzing the role of the practitioner in conducting the study, and how who they are impacts the quality of the work. This notion of reflexivity has taken on a huge role in modern social sciences and I believe journalism would also benefit from its application in reporting, editing, community engagement and story selection.
What objectivity is — and isn’t
In journalism, the quest for objectivity started as an effort to report the news fairly and accurately, whether or not the individual journalist agrees with the facts. What it has become is a Frankensteinian monster of “bothsiderism”, false equivalencies and a fallacy that good journalists have no biases, on or off the clock.
We each have lived experiences we carry with us every day that affect how we think, who we talk to and what we believe. Ethnographers know this intrinsically and write those assumptions into their work.
Kathy Charmaz, Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University, literally wrote the book on qualitative research methods. In “Constructing Grounded Theory”, she noted a researcher’s identity and background is key to the quality of data they can collect in the field.
“Just as the methods we choose influence what we see, what we bring to the study also influences what we can see,” Charmaz wrote. “We are not passive receptacles into which data are poured. Neither observer nor observed come to a scene untouched by the world.”
Objectivity isn’t a lack of belief, but rather it is an ability to critically assess one’s own biases and be transparent about them.
Or, as sociologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond described it in his book, “On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters”, “Objectivity comes to the ethnographer who knows themselves and can critically expose and assess own position relative to the field site or subject.”
Instead of putting up a facade that we don’t have any biases, let’s critically evaluate them and be hyper-conscious of them when approaching our work. Let’s be honest with the audience about who we are and what we bring to the table as journalists — and let them decide if we are being fair and truthful in our work.
In other words, journalism needs go back to the original concept of objectivity, as described by Walter Lippmann back in 1919: The method of journalism needs to be objective, not the journalist.
We can change a story just by being present
One element of reflexivity is understanding how the presence of a researcher — or, in this case, a journalist — changes the environment. We show up to a crime scene, a protest, etc. and everyone changes their behavior when they see a notebook or camera come out. Every field reporter or photographer has run into this dilemma before, but how can they account for it in the final product?
Familiarity is a major factor in capturing an authentic scene. How long the journalist can spend in the neighborhood or with the subject in question will naturally lead to some familiarity. All too often, journalists don’t have this luxury. We are in and out, the story filed, and on to the next.
The ethnographer can spend weeks, months and years at a field site, becoming an invisible part of its fabric, and still note in their final work what may have been different because they were there to see it. While we might not need to write these observations into final works for publication, the question of, “How much of what I observed was meant for me to see?” and “What did I miss?” should come up in the discussions between reporters and editors before reporting and as the story comes together to help ensure the story we are telling is the right one.
Others’ views of us can affect our access to information
Journalists and ethnographers may both consider their professional missions to be inextricably linked to the relationships they form with sources. To do our jobs well, journalists often seek to tell the story from the vantage point of the source; to get a sense of how their life experience has shaped their impressions of the world. Often missing in this narrative exercise is….ourselves.
How the source sees us — the observers and storytellers — very much shapes what information and insight they will allow us to access about them. In my own research so far, I have found interviewees’ opinions not only about me as an individual, but also the profession of journalism, has had a major impact on what they are willing to discuss.
In his ethnographic study of a public housing complex in Chicago, urban ethnographer Sudhir Venkatesh found out how the neighborhood residents viewed him over his time in their midst greatly affected both his access and what information he was able to collect. To reflect this in his study, he incorporated what he called a “reconstruction of the informant’s point of view”, or, rather, the subjects’ impression of the field researcher and the ultimate goal of his research.
In journalism, we need to be comfortable with this practice of positionality, carefully evaluating how we look to the people we are covering, and how that might affect their interactions with us and the stories we tell from those interactions.
Am I coming across as a person of privilege covering a low-income community? Could my questions reflect judgement of how this person lives? How comfortable is my subject with me telling their story if I’m a college-educated, white, upper-middle class professional (and they are not)?
Asking these questions of ourselves before and after interviews can help us get better insights into the communities we cover — and develop better relationships with our sources along the way.
Understanding power dynamics in the source-journalist relationship
Ethnographers take care to be keenly aware of the power dynamics in the interactions they have with informants. In the typical journalist-source relationship, the power balance may not be as even we might want to believe.
Author and communications educator Ruth Palmer found this out first hand when she interviewed people who had been at the center of news stories about their experiences.
Journalists seem powerful to ordinary citizens for several interrelated reasons. The first is that journalists have a much larger audience than most people can reach through their social networks. Journalists can be gatekeepers to publicity and fame. But, most important, they control how people’s stories are told to the public: what is included, how it is framed, and who is cast as the hero or the bad guy. Those decisions can have favorable or destructive consequences for the people they are reporting about — consequences that are magnified online. And yet, journalists seem to dole out those benefits or damages pretty cavalierly.
Understanding the source’s point of view towards the journalist and the media at large can help us to not only build trust, but also discover better stories. Charmaz wrote about how differences in power and status may affect the quality of an interview.
“Powerful people may take charge and turn the interview questions to address topics on their own terms, and control the timing, pacing and length of the interview,” she wrote. “[The disempowered] may recite public relations rhetoric rather than reveal personal views, much less a full account of their experiences.”
In this democratized age of information, individual journalists might not feel powerful, but we need to realize the significance of our role in the lives of our sources, who may feel they have no power at all. When we seek to interview those who are vulnerable due to their age, gender, economic status, legal status, etc., we hold all of the cards. The source has everything to lose, the journalist so much to gain.
In her interviews with former news sources, Palmer found most were pleasantly surprised to hear that reporters don’t often use their power unethically, but “it was not nearly as salient as the feeling that they always could.”
Realize it might not be your story to tell
We are entrusted with so much when we are given someone’s story to tell. Much like our counterparts in the social sciences, we have to be vigilant in analyzing when, how and even if we as journalists are the best representatives to tell these stories at all.
In many cases, allowing those with less power to be able to tell their own stories can be far more effective and a more accurate presentation of that person’s worldview. Sometimes our job is to just stay out of the way.
Write for the audience and the source (within reason)
Desmond wrote that social science studies have three languages they need to speak: That of his social science peers, the reading public and the subjects of the study. Journalists should keep a similar vein in mind in how we write about those in our communities.
While I’m not particularly concerned that we consider the feelings of every person we cover (most political reporting would probably go extinct), I feel we should consider the source who acts in good faith, especially those who are not public figures, as a key audience to the final product.
We should ask ourselves some key questions like, “Will this story make them look foolish, uneducated or immoral? Will they be embarrassed to see how they are portrayed? Will they regret talking to me?”
For example, I regularly read election year reporting from my home state of Ohio and find myself cringing at the portrayals of people, people who could very well be my family or neighbors, as “flyover state” caricatures. Maybe the reporter just thought he was describing them as they were, other than as how he saw them…but did he stop to think of how they’d see themselves after reading the article? I doubt it.
Show your work
Like all of the sciences, ethnographic studies meticulously detail their methodologies and references. An ethnographer would lay out why they selected their field site, chose informants, and cite any other studies that influenced their approach. Journalism should be no different.
If we want people to trust our work, we need to show the receipts. Why we chose this story over that one, how we found the right sources to interview, who else has covered this topic and what we added that was new. Think like a scientist; tell what you know, what you don’t and why you do what you do.
If you are interested in learning more about my ongoing ethnographic research into the relationship between news, disinformation and news consumers, or want to be notified when the final report is published, visit projectdisconnect.org.
Next week, the Digital First Interactives team is heading to Connecticut to do a training extravaganza at the New Haven Register. Data Editor Tom Meagher is giving training on data journalism, Video Editor Yvonne Leow on video and video strategy, and Curation Editor Julie Westfall on breaking news workflows and storytelling. I’ll be giving some focused training on social media – particularly on making it more, well, social.
I’ve had many an editor begrudgingly admit there’s a recurring problem with their reporter and newsrooms Twitter accounts being a little too….robotic. As in, they mimic an RSS feed with a full stream of headline-and-link tweets. No retweets, no questions, no fun.
So I’m looking for some fresh examples of tweets sent by individual local reporters and newsroom accounts that really seek to engage readers around the news. I’ve been collecting some examples in the Storify below, but I’d love suggestions of more up-to-date examples from you, your friends, colleagues and followed journalists. Leave your suggested tweets as links in the comments, or tweet them my way @mjenkins.
The online media world was in one helluva tizzy late Wednesday and early Thursday when someone discovered that CoveritLive, the live publishing interface used by many brands and news organizations, was no longer offering free accounts. Many of us have been using the ad-supported version of CiL to hold reader chats and publish liveblogs for years now – and we were quite surprised. With several big conferences and annual news events coming up, news orgs will need some alternatives in place very quickly.
As of Wednesday, CoveritLive’s trial/free plan allows for only 25 “clicks” (whatever those are) per month, with all other plans charging per “click” with a capped limit each month. In other words – this is no longer a viable option for most newsrooms.
Eds note 2:17 p.m.: I’ve been told by a social journalism contact that CiL will be free and ad-free until July 1. (Not independently verified)
Having only recently posted my praises of CoveritLive, I felt compelled to help by pulling together a list of alternative workarounds for live chats and liveblogging.
If you have a suggestion to add to this list, please share it in the comments or submit it here.
You don’t have the resources or the time to set up a whole new deal with a new vendor? OK, here’s some things you could try.
Note: This is a quick post, I intend to edit and add more suggestions below as I find or receive them.
Use your Existing CMS or Blogs
Call it low-tech, but if you have a website with a CMS or a blog, you have a liveblog (albeit a slower, manual model). We used to do this all of the time for liveblogging stories at TBD and it works fine if you set up an easy-to-follow system of posting.
Quick to-do: Start a new entry in your website’s CMS or your blog with the basic info you have for the breaking story or topic you’re tracking. When you have an update to add to this liveblog, put it above the last post, indicate it as an update with a timestamp like so.
Live Tweet and Display/Curate
It’s time to take your liveblogging to Twitter by either using your existing personal or newsroom Twitter account or setting up a special handle just for live tweets. To make sure those readers who aren’t on Twitter can still see the live postings on your site, you’ll need to do some quick curation.
For in-the-moment tweets, you could opt to use a simple Twitter widget embed to show this account’s tweets or display a hashtag search. If you want to keep the tweets on your site and in order, you’ll need to do some quick curation and publication in a tool like Storify. If you have the time and resources, you might opt for a more selective “liveblog” by live-curating tweets and other elements in Storify. You could embed the beginning of the live curation in a post on your site and all new updates you publish within Storify will automatically publish to that entry without refreshing.
Build Your Own Using Google Docs
My Digital First colleague Ivan Lajara, who always has an answer for such problems, mocked up a liveblog in Google Docs. Using the Docs “Publish to Web” feature, you can embed a live document inside your site or, for faster updates in a near-live format, put an iframe around the live document. He noted that text, URLs and images from Google Drive seem to work fine here, though users will likely have to refresh to see changes and it won’t be easily viewed on mobile devices. If you use the iframe method, be careful, as it is truly live and users will be able to see you typing as you edit.
Quick how-to from Ivan: Set up a regular Google Doc and make it public. To put an iframe around it using
<iframe src=”HERE GOES THE URL OF YOUR GOOGLE DOC” name=”frame1″ scrolling=”auto” frameborder=”no” align=”center” height = “1000px” width = “600px”></iframe>
If you try something like this on your own, drop me a tweet or comment and let me know.
You could hold a basic chat int he comments within a Facebook post. It isn’t the most elegant process in the world, but at least everyone knows how to use it. If you’d want to archive this chat, you could opt to save all of the pieces in Storify using either their Facebook page search or (as I would recommend) their browser plugin for Chrome Firefox or Safari.
There are also several Facebook apps out there (I know of Clobby, what else?) to allow brands to hold on-page chats with fans. I haven’t used this method before, so I can’t speak to it, but it exists (if you have info on it, let me know).
Use Livestream/UStream chats
If you have video capabilities, sites like UStream and Livestream are great for engaging in chats with readers. You can embed the live video stream into your site and allow comments via the sites’ built-in social stream functionality. A downside? You can’t moderate the comments.
Use Google+ Hangouts On Air
Google+ Hangouts are great, their original downside was that only 10 people could participate. Hangouts have recently gotten an upgrade thanks to the newish ability to broadcast the live chat using YouTube. If you’d like to try it, check out how the New York Times uses this tool.
To add in questions from viewers to this chat, you might opt to pair it with Google+ page comments, Twitter, Facebook and/or a liveblog entry to collect comments.
Live-curate a social media chat
Using similar methods as I described above with live tweets, you could pull together a chat on- and off-site using Twitter or Facebook coupled with Twitter and/or Storify embeds. You might want to set up a special Twitter account just for live chats, as things could get a bit crazy for your followers.
If you only care to display the chat as it happens live, you could use a Twitter widget embed to show either a hashtag search or just the tweets of the newsroom chat Twitter account and those of the involved panelists. That chat “host” could re-tweet questions from followers and, for those readers not on Twitter, could share questions sent in via on-site comments or email as tweets.
If you want a more curated experience (or you want to archive the chat), you could use Storify during or after the chat. To do this, you’ll need to set up and embed the Storify in advance. When the chat starts, you can start pulling in the tweeted questions, answers and comments within Storify. Hit “publish” often to send the updates to your site.
Cboxis a social chat product that embeds into your site. You can customize the look and feel and it seems pretty intuitive at a first glance. There is a free ad-supported version with the choice to upgrade to an ad-free version.
Chatroll is another social chat plugin that has a nice look and works in HTML5 (mobile FTW). It allows users to log in with Twitter, Facebook or chat as a guest. (Hat tips to Jen Lee Reeves)
The live chat is, in a sense, the original social media – the Arthur Crudup to Twitter and Facebook’s Elvis Presley. I think I set up and conducted my first live chat in 2004, when I was a fledgling web producer at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The technology has evolved somewhat, but the idea remains the same: Get readers into a virtual room with reporters, experts and newsmakers to ask questions directly.
In my recent travels for Digital First, I’ve been teaching a little bit about liveblogging and chats – and learning a lot, too. In what I hope will become something of a regular thing here at ZJ, I’d like to highlight the work of some of my DFM colleagues and pass along best practices and how-tos for any other journalists who’d like to try out what they’re doing.
At the York Daily Record (in York, Pa., birthplace of the peppermint patty with the same name), business reporter Lauren Boyer has become a community fixture. While she’s active on social media, her best successes have come from a couple of older-school engagement tactics: Live chats and real-life meetups.
In early February, Lauren started organizing weekly CoveritLive chats with members of the community, beginning with a live chat with a local CPA firm to kick off tax season.
“This initial effort had only 30 live readers — but they posted A LOT of very specific questions about their income tax filings,” Lauren says. “This motivated me to keep it up, figuring the quality of the discussion — providing a public service to those few readers who tuned in — was more important at the beginning as people start to catch on.”
Just last week, one of Lauren’s YDR colleagues, Sean Adkins, shared a particularly notable success story. Following a live chat with a local staffing firm, a local reader sent in her resume and was later offered a job earning $40K (now that’s community service!).
There are probably many opportunities for your newsroom to take advantage of free or inexpensive live chat tools. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
If a reporter has a big investigation or enterprise story published that got people talking, hold a chat with that reporter and/or some of the newsmakers involved in the story.
Hold regular chats with your reporters and columnists. When I worked at the Cincinnati Enquirer, we had chats almost daily with a staff member. From the TV writer to the food critic and the various sports reporters, all of these chats were on a regular schedule and usually got a lot of participation.
Open up a chat for your readers and staff to dish live during the big game/debate/local event.
Hold chats with experts in your community on topics of interest like taxes, health care, pet care, gardening, relationship advice, cooking, etc
Invite one or more local bloggers to participate in a chat about local issues or their blogging subjects.
This may be an old hat to some of you (much like the phrase “old hat”), so please share your experiences with live chats in the comments area. What tools do you use for your chats? What topics and people have worked best for you? What best practices could you share?
Lauren Boyer, a business reporter at the York Daily Record/York Sunday News, contributed to the following step-by-step directions for setting up a live chat between readers and panelists using CoveritLive. Many of these steps would also work for setting up a liveblog on your site where multiple staffers could contribute and readers can leave comments and questions.
Click the “sign in” button in the upper right hand corner and log in.
Click on My Account in the upper right hand corner. The Build tab on the home screen should be highlighted.
Fill out the information about your chat accordingly: Time, date, title and a link to where the chat will be displayed on your site (if you don’t have this yet, put in your home page and add the real link in later). You can schedule chats and liveblogs as far in advance as you’d like (and CiL recommends getting the file prepped and on your site days in advance, if possible).
Click Next. On the next page, select a category (likely News or Sports).
Customize your embed code to the size of the chat window you want (make sure it will fit into your online story or blog template). Copy the code and paste it into whatever platform you plan on using for the chat (this might be a story file on your website or an entry on your blog).
If you are embedding the chat onto Facebook, WordPress or other sites that don’t allow iFrames, check the right box under the displayed embed code to get a custom code for you.
Set Your Panelists
Under Additional Options, click Add Panelist/Producers. Under Add Panelists enter your guest panelist’s e-mail address and press the green plus sign. Adding Producers would allow another person (presumably a member of your staff) to have admin access during the chat.
Then, click the green “Send Invites” button at the bottom. Click “Save” at the bottom of the screen.
Under Additional Options, you have these options available to add to your chat or liveblog:
Enable Email Comments: Would allow users to email in comments that will show up in the chat console.
Enable Reader Login Options: Make it so only logged-in users can comment. Login options include Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or your own comment system.
Add Twitter Feeds: Add tweets from specific Twitter accounts or a running hashtag to the published stream. This is excellent for liveblogs, but could also work with chats.
Send an email invite to readers: Allows you to craft a custom email to send readers who wanted a chat reminder.
Add a Coming Soon Reminder: Enabling this gives you a special embed code that will have a box for readers to sign up for reminders when the chat starts. (Note: Make sure the link in your Location field is right!)
Notify your panelist
After you’ve set up the panelists in CoveritLive, let them know that they should have received an e-mail from an application called “Cover It Live.”
Tell them it’s important to save that email, as it has the link inside that they’ll need to click on at the time of the scheduled live chat. When they click on it, they will need to enter a login or username. It’s easier to tell them to enter a new username, since they probably don’t have a CoveritLive account (your staff, however, should have accounts).
Once they click on the chat link on the date of the chat, it will open what Lauren describes to participants as a “90s-style chat room” or an instant messenger window.
At Chat Time
Sign back into your CoverItLive account. Under My Account on the left hand side of the screen, click Upcoming. Locate your chat under CiL Events, click Launch Event Now.
Note: If you’re on an account used by multiple people, click Settings on the left-hand side of the chat console and change your display name to your name.
Only you and your panelist can see the reader comments coming in to the right side of the chat screen. To approve comments, thus making them visible to the public, click the green plus sign on the individual comment. To send a private message to the sender, click the yellow key sign. To block a user, click the red circle.
Just Xing out of the screen won’t do anything. Go under Tools on the left side of the chat screen, and click option that says End Live Event.
Access Your Past Chats: Go to My Account > Completed Events. Select the event you want and click on the buttons along the top of the menu to see what options you have available.
Edit Entries: You can edit your chat after the fact here, if need be.
Save your Archived Chat: Keep this content around for others to see. You have the to either leave the chat on-screen for a user to replay or you can copy it all down as HTML and save it in a file in your CMS. This is a good idea if you want the chat to be searched by Google.
Check your chat stats: Log into the account and click Completed on the left side of the home screen. Click the button to select your event and click the “Statistics” button (looks like a pink, blue and green bar graph).
How did The Huffington Post get 32,694 Likes, 2,525 comments and 4,268 shares on Facebook for Obama’s State of the Union address? I mean, every news outlet in the U.S. and beyond has posted something about it, so how did one outlet get so much engagement?
How about a sort of Facebook take on live-tweeting? It was an experiment, to be sure, but it seemed to work out well.
Disclosure: Although I work on HuffPost’s social team, I had nothing to do with this. I’m just passing it on as an example.
Here’s a look at the posts and how much engagement each post received (as of today at about noon).
What does this show (besides a lot of reaction)? It shows experimentation can be worth it. I’m not suggesting this would work for every big live event or for every brand, but it was well worth the adventure.
On what other occasions do you think this could work? What other experiments have you seen to increase engagement on Facebook?
There’s a conventional wisdom out there in the online journalism world that: 1.) News site comments will automatically be better if people have to use real names, and 2.) Using Facebook for your comments will accomplish this.
Aside from that, there’s also all kinds of evidence that Facebook comments aren’t the end-all, be-all answer on this front.
As my friend Jeff Sonderman recently wrote at Poynter, Facebook comments can be a boon to news sites in lots of ways: Increased Facebook traffic referrals, fast page load times, an easy out-of-the-box comment solution.
While there is a rule on Facebook that one has to use their real name, it’s not always followed. I have several Facebook friends who use false names for various personal reasons – and they are all, essentially, anonymous. That said, they are still identifiable to their friends, which still keeps some people in check with their online comments. (Though this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone.)
The biggest threat to the alleged transparency and decency of Facebook-powered commenting lies in the same tool many news organizations use to communicate with readers: Facebook Pages.
Just speaking anecdotally here (if you have stats to back me up, please help), I’ve seen an uptick of abusive posts and trolling on Facebook ever since it rolled out its new pages in February. That rollout included the new ability to use Facebook as a page.
This change made it possible for just anyone to set up a fake character on Facebook – and then use Facebook as that character. On The Huffington Posts’s pages (on which I am an administrator) and the pages of other groups and news organizations, I’ve seen these fake accounts spreading spam, trolling the page’s regular users and making hateful statements under the guise of a made-up character.
Here’s a view examples of some alias accounts I found on news pages (or skip below if you want):
Even before this change, there was a history of false profilesspamming and trolling Facebook, the addition of Use-As-Page to the toolbox only gave trolls a new way to stay in business. Facebook has staff that deals with those accounts when they are foundor reported, but it certainly can’t be easy for them to keep up with people who are dead set on being trolly.
(Related aside: When I worked as a comment moderator for the Cincinnati Enquirer, a troublesome site user with many usernames emailed me to say, “I’m retired and have nothing else to do but create new accounts every time you block me. I can make your live miserable.” This is just a sampling of the mentality of trolls, folks. Here’s another.)
I’m just warning that news sites shouldn’t assume that Facebook on its own will solve their commenting problems. Users can and will still be anonymous (or even identifiable) hateful trolls. To make it work, you still need a daily moderation workflow and a newsroom-wide commitment to not only reading story/blog comments, but responding to them.
Sure, we all talk about how engagement is SO IMPORTANT and we want to work with our readers, but when it comes to criticism, I so often hear social media coordinators or newsroom editors say, “Eh, I just ignore them, no point in replying.” Not so.
First of all, keep in mind, there are two types of detractors you’re likely dealing with here: Trolls and complainers. Complainers can be turned into fans – or at least neutral parties – but trolls will always be trolls, no matter what you do. While it can be difficult to sort through your hate mail/comments to find those that would benefit from a reply, it’s worth it if you can change at least one mind.
Case in point: Last Friday, we at The Huffington Post, along with every other news outlet, posted Sarah Palin’s emails from her time as governor of Alaska and asked readers to pore through them. In our post, we included an email address for people to send their observations. Predictably, this email address got quite a few angry notes from Palin fans, Republicans and people who generally just don’t like the idea of anyone reading anyone’s emails.
Some of the criticism came in as your standard troll fare – all caps with lots of name-calling and vulgarity thrown around with no actual explanation about why they were upset. Those were tossed out. The others – those who cited what their complaint actually was – got an email directly from me (not a nameless form email).
After reading through the first few dozen, I saw a few themes emerging. I wrote three basic form emails, one for each theme, and saved them in my Gmail. (If you’ve not used canned responses in Gmail Labs, you are missing out. It has so many uses.) I then plowed through the emails and added the canned responses according to their specific complaint – if an email didn’t fit the canned reponse, I quickly wrote a custom note.
All in all, it took me about an hour to get through a few hundred emails. Did it make a difference? Well, check out these responses from some originally very angry readers…
Thank you for your reply, I am pleasantly surprised to hear from you.
I have been on aol for many years and had been thinking about switching and cannot understand why a news outlet would employ a far left blog to run its news page. Your email is one reason to stay. Please keep it objective.
Thank you Mandy for your surprising reply. I really did not expect to hear back from someone.
Thank you for responding. May God bless you and our country.
Thanks for taking your time to respond; an unexpected surprise — I understand and appreciate your position on the issue now
I do appreciate your response, and must admit that I was quite surprised to receive one. Again, thank you!
I do thank you, again, for the response. I appreciate that you bothered to take the time a form a thought on it! 🙂
Admittedly, many of these had a “but” after these comments, but you could tell they were happy to hear from anyone. I had a few others where my troll radar was off – and now they are emailing me directly to tell me how awful I am. So goes the Internet. That’s what the mute button is for.
This same strategy goes for Twitter, Facebook and on-site comments. Pick who has an actual problem, a tangible complaint – and try to address it. Even if you only say “I’m passing this on to the right person,” at least you are showing that you’re listening.
Back in the day, newsroom customer service meant picking up the general phone number in the newsroom. Now we have a lot more channels for readers to lodge their complaints. All we need to do is pick up the phone.