The ability for readers and journalists to engage in conversation online is often touted as a key achievement of the digital media revolution, but when it comes to the comments section it’s men who are doing most of the talking.
New University of Sydney research has found male or pseudonymous voices dominate the comment sections of news stories on 15 news sites internationally including The Guardian, Washington Post and Sydney Morning Herald. Female identified commenters make up as little as three percent of participant voices, and at most 35 percent, based on a sample of news services from Australia, the United States and Britain.
Dr Fiona Martin, senior lecturer in convergent and online media at the University of Sydney, said her findings tally with other research that shows that men dominate conversations in meetings, seminars and other public gatherings, unless those events are organised and run by women.
“Comments can influence opinion. Research suggests negative comments reduce readers’ opinion of an article, so it’s also plausible that an absence of views from women, or migrants or young people could also affect how people interpret online news,” said Martin.
Major international news websites such as the BBC, ABC, Daily Mail and New York Times were included in the study of in-house news comments sections.
Martin said the findings of gender bias in the study should make publishers and policymakers pause to investigate the commercial and diversity implications of this marginalisation of women from the digital public sphere.
“Comments increase user engagement and therefore revenue,” she said. “They also provide extra content, production feedback and quality control. Given there’s significant moderation cost to providing a commenting service it’s important to make sure its appealing to as many users as possible.”
Martin said major news websites not only need to improve moderation to reduce abusive or aggressive commenting, but also explore more interventionist approaches that support conversational interaction. They could also encourage journalists to interact with users more often – particularly to address questions and suggestions.
“Involving more people in the comments, more productively, and making sure the quality of the interaction is civil and rewarding can only have benefits,” she said.