Anyone who's ever ventured into the comments section of a news website has likely observed some unfriendly exchanges. Now research from the University of Utah and the University of Arizona has confirmed just how common such behavior is.
In a new study published in the Journal of Communication, researchers analyzed more than 6,400 reader comments posted to the website of the Arizona Daily Star, the major daily newspaper in Tucson, Arizona. They found that more than 1 in 5 comments included some form of incivility, with name-calling as the most prevalent type.
"We tracked six different kinds of uncivil language, but name-calling was far and away the most common," said Kevin Coe, assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah and one of the study's authors. "Many people just can't seem to avoid the impulse to go after someone else."
The study also showed that these types of commenters do not fit the stereotype of a few angry individuals who spend hours at their computers blasting others and making baseless claims. In fact, incivility was more common among infrequent commenters. Equally surprising, uncivil commenters were just as likely to use evidence in support of their claims as were the more respectful individuals.
As might be expected, stories that focused on well-known leaders with clear partisan positions garnered more impolite comments. In stories that quoted President Barack Obama, for example, nearly 1 in 3 comments were uncivil.
Disrespectful comments also tended to spike in discussions about weightier issues, such as politics, the economy, crime and taxes. The one exception to this trend was sports articles, which generated the highest percentage of these types of comments.
"Being a sports fan myself, this didn't surprise me," said Coe. "Honestly, the only online incivility I've ever been guilty of was probably sports-related."
The researchers noted one cause for optimism in their findings. When one commenter was directly replying to another commenter, they were more likely to be courteous.
"We tend to be more respectful in our public discourse when we recognize other citizens' perspectives, even when we do not agree with them," noted Kate Kenski, associate professor of communication at the University of Arizona and co-author of the study. "When we quote others participating in an online discussion, we tend to focus on their arguments, not on personal attributions, which makes the conversation more civil."
- Kevin Coe, Kate Kenski, Stephen A. Rains. Online and Uncivil? Patterns and Determinants of Incivility in Newspaper Website Comments. Journal of Communication, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12104
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