The Effects of Uncivil and Skeptical Online Comments On News Credibility and Believability



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Online comments posted after news stories have become a permanent fixture on media websites and a topic of growing interest to academic researchers. Of particular import is the possible effects on readers from comments that are uncivil or that deny the veracity of the accompanying news story. Research on the effects of comments is grounded in a variety of theoretical explanations, is weakened by multiple and unusual operationalizations of dependent variables, and the findings are equivocal. This thesis is a report of a post-test only between-subjects two-factor experiment (n = 210) testing the effects of incivility and denial in online comments on dependent variables of news credibility and story believability, a concept adopted from research in narrative. I find little support for hypotheses that the dependent variables are influenced by the presence of comments, compared to stories with no comments posted afterwards. I find some evidence that incivility in online comments hurts the credibility of accompanying news stories, but only when that incivility is extreme, or “histrionic.” My data suggests comments denying the veracity of a news story may influence readers’ perception of the credibility and believability of the story. While the findings are mixed, I argue they suggest uncivil online comments may have a limited influence on readers perceptions of the news. Instead, comments that deny the veracity of a news story may have a stronger effect. Because of that, news editors and producers should consider responding to online comments that directly deny the veracity of the news.