An Interview with the Engaging News Project: Increasing Civility and Engagement with Online News Innovations

An Interview with Talia Stroud

News consumption today is profoundly different from the world of only a few years ago.

We can now choose from thousands of outlets and social media sites, giving us the chance to select only those that cater to and deepen our political beliefs, rather than seeking out information and opinions that challenge our way of thinking. While online platforms create new opportunities for civic participation, comment sections have often resulted in uncivil and angry debate, while other tools – like polls – tend to be superficial and misleading for readers.

With the proliferation of options that allow us to tune into one perspective or tune out of civic news, how can we ensure that our transition to digital platforms contributes to more informed, engaged, and civil participation, rather than further polarizing our democracy and narrowing our political discourse?

I couldn’t sleep the night I returned home [from the Engaging News Project workshop] as my brain was racing with ideas – trying to recall everything I heard and learned from the other journalists and from the intellectual stimulation you created for all of us. Mostly though, I came back with an even greater sense of hope for journalism.

Keira Nothaft, The Arizona Republic

The Engaging News Project is responding to this question by running real-life experiments to surface innovations that news sites can easily implement to better inform their readers while improving the sites’ financial returns. The project’s research team tests web-based strategies for informing audiences, promoting authentic discourse, and helping citizens to better understand diverse views. At the same time, they analyze business outcomes, such as clicks and time on page, to ensure that publishers will have a strong motivation to incorporate new tools and practices that are recommended. The Engaging News Project’s systematic testing provides valuable information about what works and what doesn’t for newsrooms that are often too strapped for time and resources to conduct their own experimentation.

The Engaging News Project’s director, Dr. Talia Stroud, talks about her latest work and what the team is learning in the interview below.

DF: What has the Engaging News Project been working on?
TS: The vast majority of news sites invite visitors to share, like, or recommend a story; over 90% have a comment section. These features are aimed at increasing interest and participation, but often they don’t achieve those goals. The Engaging News Project set out to understand the underlying dynamics and develop some solutions. In 2012, we began systematically testing a series of options that could simultaneously meet business, journalistic, and civic objectives. For example, we found that re-structuring comment sections can increase the number of visitors who offer comments; that the language used on hyperlinks and buttons influences how readers interact with viewpoints different from their own; that news quizzes can be accurate and educational while also extending time on the site; and that certain kinds of reporter engagement in comment sections can diminish incivility and increase participation. With evidence about the effectiveness of these strategies in hand, we are now partnering with news outlets around the country to build awareness and support implementation.

DF: Why are you passionate about the Engaging News Project?
TS: Research shows that incivility in the news depresses trust in government institutions. So it’s not really a leap to say that our national civic life is at great risk unless news organizations can sustain productive, civil engagement online. ENP has rigorously experimented and come up with a series of options that can help them do that.

DF: What is your favorite ENP tool?
TS: I’m particularly excited about the “Respect” button – it’s an alternative to the “Like” button you see across social media. If you think about it, “Like” doesn’t always seem appropriate. When you read an article on a tragic event it’s hard to hit “Like.” That’s also true for a post you don’t agree with, but that’s fair-minded. But what if you could “respect” that comment? We know that people’s willingness to consider opposing viewpoints is good for democracy. Our research found that people use a “Respect” button in less partisan ways than they use a “Like” button. People can “Respect” an oppositional view that they don’t “Like.”

DF: What’s next for ENP?
TS: We’ve really been building some momentum – we’ve met with more than 50 journalists and news outlets in the last year, and more than 10 outlets have adopted some of ENP’s strategies, including The Sacramento Bee and The Texas Tribune. But we want to reach out even further – to be a resource for anyone interested in improving online news: media organizations, news audiences, or other academics. We’re constantly looking for new partnerships, and always welcome ideas for new research.

  • The Engaging News Project