This is the first in a series of student posts tied to the Coral Project and Marie Tessier’s 2015-2016 RJI Fellowship — a project dedicated to boosting the engagement and participation of women in online community forums. Student participation in Tessier’s fellowship began last semester in a senior-level undergraduate course at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. This year, Kristin Rohlwing, a convergence and emerging media senior, and freshman Discovery Fellow Humera Lodhi are continuing Tessier’s work as an independent study project.

Many millennial women claim commenting on news articles online is important for democracy, yet few say they are actually sharing their points of view, according to an online survey conducted by University of Missouri School of Journalism students in December 2015.

“I usually read to observe rather than participate in the discussion,” wrote one respondent. “I don’t think my comments are or would be necessary.”

Eighty-four percent of respondents never comment on news stories, according to the survey. Ninety percent said they read the comments at least occasionally, and 82 percent of women who said they participate at least somewhat with comment sections agreed that commenting is important for both democracy and as a means of adding their perspective to the conversation.

We also found that online harassment is a deterrent as well.

The convenience sample survey of women ages18 to 35 (those born between the years 1980 and 1997 and commonly called millennials) asked them to address their online news use behaviors, specifically their use of and participation in commenting on news stories. Five hundred and twelve women took the survey: 85 percent were ages 18 to 24 and 15 percent were 25 to 35. The survey supported earlier findings that the majority of millennial women consume news through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. A third important medium was email newsletters.

One of the most interesting findings is that 84 percent of these millennial women report they never comment on news stories. Ninety percent did say they read the comments at least occasionally. 

How often women aged 18–35 comment on online articles

Reynolds Journalism Institute (2015). Women's Participation in Online Comments Convenience Survey.

This graph shows a subset of the women who answered they comment once in awhile. Eighty-two percent agreed that commenting is important for both democracy and as a means of adding their perspective to the conversation.

The importance of commenting according to women aged 18–35 who said they comment at least sometimes

Reynolds Journalism Institute (2015). Women's Participation in Online Comments Convenience Survey.

Research about comments show that men outnumber women on the world’s top 15 news sites by 3-to-1 or 4-to-1.

Gender of commenter names: International and metropolitan news services, top 100 commenters

Martin, F. (2015). Getting my two cents worth in: Access, interaction, participation and social inclusion in online news commenting. #ISOJ Journal, 5(1), 80–102.

Why should we care if women comment online?

In a New York Times post titled “How to Get More Women to Join the Debate,” Emma Pierson wrote, “Accomplishing this online becomes increasingly important as online forums like newspaper comment pages become the modern-day Athenian agorae. So how do we do it?”

Pierson analyzed nearly one million comments on The New York Times’ website. She found female voices were highly underrepresented, making up only a quarter of comments. However, women’s comments received more recommendations, or “likes,” than men.

“Because men and women’s opinions differ in many other ways as well, the undemocratic implication is simple: when one gender is underrepresented, the views that are heard will not fairly represent the views that are held,” wrote Pierson.

It shouldn’t be surprising that women don’t feel comfortable commenting: With a mixture of online harassment and societal norms, women are conditioned to be subservient and seen, not heard. Incivility and underrepresentation online is reflective of the bigger issue that exists in society.

Online harassment is one of the big barriers women face on the Web. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, 26 percent of women ages 18 to 24 reported being trolled and harassed. This number might seem small, but women are 25 times more likely than men to receive threats of rape and death online.

In our data, women said they fear a hostile environment if they offer a comment outside their personal networks, and that does limit their willingness to participate in online conversations.

Impact of online harrassment

Reynolds Journalism Institute (2015). Women's Participation in Online Comments Convenience Survey.

When asked what would encourage them to voice their thoughts in the comment section, an overwhelming number of women said, “A more productive and civil environment.”

The influence of online harassment

Instead of comment sections, we found that women gravitate to platforms where they feel more comfortable: their personal networks on social media. Seventy-eight percent of women said they added their opinions when sharing articles on social media. That’s 62 percent more compared to writing in the comment section.

Bridging the gap between news sites and women’s personal networks on social media could be a re-cultivated comment section: a discussion forum that would serve as the millennial Athenian agorae.

Marie Tessier  
Institutional fellowship project lead


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