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Ines Drefs: A Chance for Dialogical Journalism? Social Web Practices and Handling of User Comments at Deutsche Welle

Abstract: The value of online user comments is a much-debated issue. In journalism, the newly arising possibility for readers and viewers to easily and instantaneously share their views on journalistic output was welcomed at first. Compared to the conventional letter to the editor it represented a democratized form of audience feedback. News organizations increased their presence in the social web and gained more and more experience with user comments. Over time, however, discontent towards the quality of online user comments seemed to grow. But what is the responsibility of journalism in this respect? How do news organizations use the social web? How do they handle online user comments? To what extent do they tap the dialogical potential of the social web for facilitating exchange and understanding between different viewpoints? This study pursues these questions by investigating the case of Germany’s international public service broadcaster Deutsche Welle with its explicit dialogical mandate. It provides an in-depth examination of a transition period in which the news organization is grappling with its self-conception as a serious news provider in the casual social web environment, in which social media editors struggle for recognition from their established colleagues, and in which “stepping back and letting the discussion unfold on its own” serves as a strategy to avoid censorship accusations from users. Based on a specially developed analytical grid the study offers a democracy-theoretical evaluation of the user comments and their handling by Deutsche Welle.

Band 7

A Chance for Dialogical Journalism?

Social Web Practices and Handling of User Comments at Deutsche Welle

Ines Drefs

DOI 10.48541/dcr.v7.0 (SSOAR) | ISBN 978-3-945681-07-0 | Download Band 7

Printed copies can be ordered at a price of 39 Euro (plus shipping costs) from Boehland & Schremmer Verlag Berlin at www.boehland-schremmer-verlag.de or simply by e-mail (form template).

Table of Contents

1 Introduction
1.1 Research interest
1.2 Research objectives
1.3 Methodological proceeding
1.4 Structure of the study


2 Dialogue as a mandate: German international broadcasting
2.1 Profile of Deutsche Welle
2.2 Central functions
2.2.1 Public service function
2.2.2 Political function
2.2.3 Dialogical function
2.3 Summary and conclusion: Deutsche Welle as an instructive case study

3 Journalism as a facilitator of democratically relevant communication
3.1 Journalism and dialogue
3.1.1 Theoretical underpinnings of dialogue
3.1.2 Democracy-theoretical relevance of dialogue
3.1.3 Journalists’ role as dialogue mediators
3.2 Journalism and discourse
3.2.1 Theoretical underpinnings of discourse
3.2.2 Democracy-theoretical relevance of discourse
3.2.3 Journalists’ role as discourse advocates
3.3 Journalism and everyday talk
3.3.1 Theoretical underpinnings of everyday talk
3.3.2 Democracy-theoretical relevance of everyday talk
3.3.3 Journalists’ role as objective observers
3.4 Summary and conclusion: Ranking journalism concepts according to democratic standards

4 Journalism in the social web
4.1 Public sphere under social web conditions
4.2 Social web usage in professional contexts
4.3 Changing journalism-audience relations in the digital age
4.4 Communicative expectations and challenges of journalism in the social web
4.4.1 Output stage
4.4.2 Response stage
4.5 Journalism as a facilitator of democratically relevant communication in the social web
4.6 Summary and conclusion: Parallels between old and new expectations

5 Specified research interest
5.1 Case study: Methodological approach and objectives
5.2 Research questions and propositions
5.3 Multiple cases: DW German, DW English, and DW Russian on Facebook and YouTube
5.4 Summary and conclusion

6 Analytical framework and methodological design
6.1 Models of analysis
6.1.1 Identifying professional journalistic social web practices
6.1.2 Assessing social web communication with regard to democratic relevance
6.2 Research methods and instruments
6.2.1 Social web content analysis
6.2.2 Expert interview
6.2.3 Document analysis
6.2.4 Method combination


7 Journalistic social web usage at the output stage
7.1 Identity management
7.1.1 Making DW accessible: From single-handed to concerted action
7.1.2 Self-assured or torn? Reconciling international broadcasting functions with social web activity
7.1.3 Review of P1 and conclusion
7.2 Information management
7.2.1 Workflow: Who is in charge of what?
7.2.2 Social web output: Considerations and characteristics
7.2.3 Overarching challenges: Constant change and online security
7.2.4 Review of P2 and conclusion
7.3 Relationship management
7.3.1 Directly in charge: Relating to the social web audience
7.3.2 Indirectly in charge: Making the newsroom aware of social web audiences
7.3.3 Review of P3 and conclusion
7.4 Answer to RQ1

8 Democratic relevance of journalistic social web activity at the response stage
8.1 User comments
8.1.1 Where users largely fulfilled high democratic standards: Relevance and civility
8.1.2 Where users partly fulfilled higher democratic standards: Viewpoints, interrelation, argumentation
8.1.3 Where users rarely fulfilled higher democratic standards: Feedback, context information, metadiscussion
8.1.4 Interim conclusion
8.1.5 Answer to RQ2a
8.2 Journalistic handling of user comments
8.2.1 General approach: “Step back and let the discussion unfold on its own”
8.2.2 Where DW most likely fulfilled higher democratic standards: Civility
8.2.3 Where DW rarely fulfilled higher democratic standards: Feedback, context information, viewpoints, argumentation
8.2.4 Where DW engaged not at all: Relevance, interrelation, meta-discussion
8.2.5 Answer to RQ2b
8.2.6 Review of P4 and conclusion
8.2.7 Answer to RQ2

9 Conclusion and discussion
9.1 Theoretical implications of the findings
9.2 Practical relevance of the findings
9.3 Methodological reflections and future research



Appendix 1: Summary
Appendix 2: Variables (quantitative content analysis)
Appendix 3: Codebooks
Appendix 4: Organization chart of Deutsche Welle (August 2012)
Appendix 5: Interview guide

Drefs, I. (2021). A Chance for Dialogical Journalism? Social Web Practices and Handling of User Comments at Deutsche Welle. Berlin: Digital Communication Research. doi:10.48541/dcr.v7.0

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