This commentary is from The National Business Review, reporting on Horizon's research on those who post comments on news media web sites. Are the media missing a significant opportunity to engage with New Zealanders? Or are too many Kiwis too toxic to handle?
We all know the stereotype about the type of person who leaves website comments: a mouth-breathing bigot with too much time on his hands.
But what’s the reality?
Horizon Research gave NBR access to its survey on which New Zealanders are posting to comments to media news websites.
The company has an online panel of people aged 18+, weighted to represent the New Zealand adult population at the 2013 census.
Concerned about RNZ’s decision to turn off comments, announced earlier this week, Horizon principal Graeme Colman sent a progress update on his company’s latest media research.
With 616 surveyed, it finds that overall 13.7% leave comments after news stories on media websites.
That’s equivalent to 438,257 people in the whole population. And bear in mind that these days it’s not easy to get a comment published on Stuff or the NZ Herald, where there are narrow windows of time when readers are allowed to post.
Even more interestingly – and remember Horizon’s sample is weighted to the census – the research finds the following three categories of respondents are the most likely to comment:
Professional/senior government official: 43.4% have left comments
Business manager/executive: 21.6%
Business proprietor/self-employed: 19.4%
Yes, students (17.6%) and the unemployed (16.7%) are ahead of the average but blue-collar workers (6.3%), clerical staff (6.4%) and the retired (4.5%) are below it. They might not be the biggest sections of the population but business people, professionals and senior government officials are regardless the most enthusiastic about comments – and (cough) at least one publications is dedicated to catering for them.
Horizon has also found that the propensity to comment is evenly balanced by gender (women are slightly ahead) and those in the fabled, hard-to-reach Millennial bracket (18 to 34 year-olds) are more likely to comment than the average person.
RNZ charter breach? “Some 438,000 adults nationwide have taken advantage of that opportunity to have their views known. So that’s quite a number of people being denied the opportunity to comment by sites like Radio New Zealand,” says Mr Colman (who is not on board with the state broadcaster’s recent rebranding to RNZ).
In turning off comments, RNZ noted it was following a trend established by CNN, Bloomberg, Reuters and others.
That doesn’t wash with the Horizon principal.
“It’s really not an excuse, is it?” he says. “Radio New Zealand said, ‘Some have switched it off overseas. They seem to have found a problem – some people leaving ‘toxic’ comments. But isn’t that a failure to moderate?”
NBR does moderate comments before they go live. RNZ moderated comments after the fact, but maintains the time required to moderate comments, and the fact more were now being left on social media sites like its Facebook pages, were bigger factors in its decision to silence readers on its website.
“They also said earlier this week they want to focus on those spaces ‘that reflect our charter,’” Mr Colman says.
“But actually if you look at clause 5d of the charter, it is to “foster critical thought, and informed and wide-ranging debate," he says. Mr Colman questions whether chopping the ability to comment fits with that clause.
“We’re now being told by state radio that these people are too toxic. I just don’t believe it,” he says (earlier, RNZ community engagement editor Megan Whelan told NBR the broadcaster is still fostering engagement but is following its audience to the likes of Twitter and Reddit).
“There is evidence that, if you do this properly, you’re going to get very high-quality comments. When it’s run right, it is a massive opportunity to get and encourage informed debate and comment," Mr Colman adds.
“People now have this amazing capacity to be engaged. And we’re not stupid. New Zealanders have an immense fund of common sense. And I think they love to have ways to engage and express it. Because, if you’re like me, you often read then say ‘Well, I may have a view on that.’ And we need to be smart in the media to accommodate that view, not chop it off because we don’t know how to moderate.”
Mr Colman wraps up, “So it [RNZ] has got a problem. It needs to address this problem. We’ve had a Brexit. It might have a Rexit now from Radio New Zealand.” This story is open for comment at Horizon's Facebook page.