Communication Currents

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Can Online Comments Make the News More Inspiring?

October 3, 2017
Digital Communication & Gaming, Mass Communication

Nearly everyone has seen a “feel good” fundraising campaign ad or read a “warm and fuzzy” viral article about doing good. Research has shown that “meaningful media” like the above examples can foster the experience of “elevation,” a mixed affective state that includes emotions such as tenderness,  inspiration, joy and sadness, as well as physical sensations such as goose bumps or a lump in the throat.

Communication scholars T. Franklin Waddell and Amanda Bailey wanted to explore whether online comments that accompany inspiring news stories can shape readers’ emotional reactions. In a recent issue of Communication Monographs, their research tested this possibility using a 2 (news type: inspiring vs. non-inspiring control) x 3 (comment type: civil vs. uncivil vs. no comment control) experimental design. “Although online comments tend to exist on the periphery of news, emerging research suggest that readers’ evaluations of news are often shaped by the response of other readers,” they write.

How does inspiring media make us feel?

The authors explain that past work has identified two different motivations for media use: hedonic, which is pleasure-focused and leads to positive affective states; and eudaimonic, which deals with emotionally compelling topics such as moral beauty and self-sacrifice (watching Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’s List, for example). When we are exposed to eduaimonic media, we feel more empathy, and have an “increased altruistic intentions and a stronger sense of unity with others,” the authors write. Previous research has focused primarily on elevation evoked by film and video narratives, but Waddell and Bailey hypothesized that text-based inspiring news stories would also evoke higher states of elevation if they contained elements related to self-sacrifice or generosity.

Adding comments to the mix

But what happens when inspiring news stories are accompanied by reader comments? “Prospective effects of elevating media may vary in digital settings, as the action possibilities of digital media have introduced a range of cues that can shape the way media messages are perceived by audiences,” the authors write. The integration of social media sharing functionality into online news sites provides audience metrics known as “agency affordances,” as interactivity changes the way news is presented, and also influence the way content is processed and evaluated.

Previous research has focused on the hostility and profanity among readers that may result from comments and on how comments tend to elicit group-consistent attitudes and behaviors. For this study, the authors wanted to explore if “a media effect such as universal orientation may also be affected by comments.” Further, they wanted to test whether civil or uncivil comments could possibly cause readers to feel more inspired even when exposed to news stories with no inspirational qualities

Results of the study

The researchers developed six hypotheses for their study, which were tested with an online sample of 365 participants using a crowdsourcing site called Amazon Mechanical Turk. The participants were randomly assigned to one of six possible conditions in which they were asked to read one of four inspiring or non-inspiring news articles set up with a dummy USA Today header. Each article included civil, uncivil, or no social media comments at the end. After reading, participants completed a questionnaire to measure their levels of meaning affect, mixed affect, physical indicators of elevation, bandwagon perceptions, presumed influence, and universal orientation.

The study yielded the following results:

  • Hypothesis 1: Inspiring news will elicit greater feelings of elevation than non-inspiring news. – Supported
  • Hypothesis 2: Inspiring news will elicit greater feelings of universal orientation than non-inspiring news. – Rejected
  • Hypothesis 3: The effect of inspiring news on elevation will be moderated by comment type (higher for civil comments than uncivil) – Rejected
  • Hypothesis 4: The effect of inspiring news on universal orientation will be moderated by comment type (higher for civil comments than uncivil) – Rejected
  • Hypothesis 5: News accompanied by civil comments will elicit greater feelings of elevation than news accompanied by uncivil comments or without comments. – Rejected
  • Hypothesis 6: News accompanied by civil comments will elicit higher feelings of universal orientation than news accompanied by uncivil comments. – Partially supported

Ultimately, the findings suggest that “online comments can influence feelings of elevation and universal orientation.” Specifically, “news was less likely to elicit affective states associated with elevation when accompanied by either civil or uncivil comments.” The authors note that understanding how established media effects vary in the web 2.0 environment is “critical to the development and refinement of theory initially introduced in the age of analog media.” They argue that exposure to audience metrics “allows news readers to resolve inconsistent affective states by conforming to the opinion of others,” which places an emphasis on the importance of technological features in shaping the effects of media on reader response.

Recommendations for further research

Waddell and Bailey acknowledge that there are many additional avenues of exploration. They suggest that future studies could consider the identity and political characteristics of the readers, or feature comments that were more about the news content itself rather than generic comments targeted toward the outlet. They also recommend varying the number of comments attached to the articles to determine if the size of the “bandwagon” makes a difference to the effects that comment have on readers’ psychology. In conclusion, they note that “media effects theory will increasingly need to account for not just the influence of content, but also that of the assumed response of other media consumers.”

This essay was translated from the scholarly article: Waddell, T. Franklin, and Bailey, Amanda (2017). “Inspired by the crowd: The effect of online comments on elevation and universal orientation.” Communication Monographs, doi: 10.1080/03637751.2017.1369137.

About the author (s)

T. Franklin Waddell

University of Florida

Assistant Professor

Photo of T. Franklin Waddell

Amanda Bailey

University of Florida

Graduate Student

Photo of Amanda Bailey