Women make up only between three and 15 per cent of commenters posting on major Australian and international news sites, according to an Australian study.
The University of Sydney report, titled Having My Two Cents Worth: Access, Interaction, Participation and Social Inclusion in Online News Commenting, was produced by online and convergent media lecturer Dr Fiona Martin.
She found commenters that identify as male or use male names, along with commenters using pseudonyms who are neither identifiably male nor female, dominate the conversation in the comments section by a significant margin.
The reasons are not clear, but Dr Martin said there were a number of factors that might be at play.
Women could be staying away from online comment sections because “there’s evidence to suggest that women get more abuse than men in public,” Dr Martin said.
“Women are also less likely to have time for commenting, so they’re still the ones that are juggling more household work and caring work than men.
“[Comment sections] are new social spaces, so we don’t actually have hundreds of years of tradition about how we talk to each other and relate to each other in these spaces.”
The study covered comment sections on sites including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, The Washington Post, the BBC, the ABC, the Daily Mail and The New York Times as well as some Australian regional mastheads and the NT News.
It can be difficult to tell whether the disparity between men and women commenting on articles is down to general social dynamics, or whether the design of the commenting platforms can be improved to encourage a greater diversity of voices and less antagonism.
“That adversarial dynamic, particularly where the first person who posts runs down the author of the article, dismisses them, sets up a really negative dynamic thereafter,” Dr Martin said.
“And there’s some research that suggests that negative comments actually reduce readers’ estimation of the article.”
Dr Martin says that unless journalists and editors start to think of the comment section as a valued part of the news ecosystem, there’s no hope of improvement,.
“I think there’s a lot of dismissing of comments [by journalists] and I think people say oh well, comments are a basket case, they’re populated by nutters and unpleasant people, angry people, shouty men,” Dr Martin said.
There has been a trend recently towards removing comment sections entirely because of this perception – The New Yorker, Reuters and Popular Science, to name a few, have all walked away from reader comments on articles.
“Reuters is a news agency, their business is not audience,” Dr Martin said. “[But] The New Yorker is a magazine, Popular Science is a magazine … and magazines are all about community so I think it’s interesting that they’ve chosen to remove comments.”
Dr Martin is about to embark on the next phase of her research, which is analysing the most successful comment sections around the world to find out what they do to create strong communities and engagement.
The Newspaper Works has contacted the Australian publishers whose websites were analysed in the study for further comment.