RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: WHAT TERMS AND CONDITIONS MODERATING READER COMMENTS TO AUSTRALIAN ONLINE NEWS SITES SAY ABOUT TRUST IN THE AUDIENCE
Reader comments to online news websites have become a critical component of civic engagement and debate since the introduction of digital media. While many online news organisations encourage reader comments to maintain a loyal audience, audience participation is often constrained by the terms and conditions used to govern reader comments. By imposing strict moderation policies, news organisations demonstrate a lack of trust towards the audience. Yet, many organisations continue to demand high levels of public trust in their brands and the institution of journalism. Using critical discourse analysis, this study examines the terms and conditions used to moderate reader comments to four Australian online news sites, and assesses the level of trust afforded to audiences through comment moderation policies. Public statements from each of these organisations about public trust in their organisation or the institution of news are also assessed, to contrast the level of trust these organisations expect with that which is afforded to the audience through moderation policies. This research finds that the moderation policies analysed represent significant impediments to audience expression, and demonstrate a discrepancy between the level of trust afforded to participants and that which the organisations demand from their readers. Despite early hopes that online reader comments may facilitate greater opportunities for democratic participation for citizens, the potential for substantial democratic debate on the online news sites examined in this research remains unrealised.