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PBS Standards

Community Guidelines Help Maintain Civil Online Engagement
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The pandemic has been isolating in many ways, but the staff at Twin Cities PBS (TPT) found creative and thoughtful ways to build and engage their online audience in a welcoming environment.

TPT produces Rewire, a digital magazine that offers content for young adults, and Next Avenue, a site that serves older Americans.

Asking their Next Avenue audience to “surprise us with your most unusual creative pastime during the pandemic” did not disappoint. The answers ranged from quilting and baking to making pine needle baskets and adopting a pandemic parakeet.

The station found that their younger audience responded well to emoji check-ins on Instagram where users were asked to describe their feelings using only the small digital images.

These prompts not only sparked discussion, they also were used to help generate content for both websites. For example, Next Avenue used its social media channels to solicit personal essays, which became published works as part of “Telling Our Stories.”

The PBS Editorial Standards encourage active, clever, and engaging digital engagement with the audience. In doing so, producers must remain accountable and responsive to the audience by striving “to facilitate a civil exchange of ideas and learning” while avoiding “getting drawn into personal attacks or other angry exchanges.” 

Community guidelines, a published set of norms for how to behave, are an important way to create an inviting space for open conversation.

“Community guidelines can help set the tone for the kind of discussions you hope to foster with your content,” said Sabrina Crews, audience engagement editor for Rewire and Next Avenue. “Our guidelines help us create and maintain a welcoming space for all; another advantage of having them is that they're something concrete we can point to when threads spiral and we need to delete disrespectful comments.”

Rewire’s and Next Avenue’s community guidelines state, in part: “We aim to provide thought-provoking content that inspires our audience to explore questions, make their lives better, and spark action. We are a community of people representing different backgrounds, and each member of our community has the right to feel comfortable, welcomed, and safe.”  

> Rewire’s and Next Avenue’s community guidelines can be read in full here.

Crews said the greatest challenges to having productive conversations on social media are misinformation, trolling, and the divided political climate.

For this reason, the guidelines request that users “Post comments that are relevant to the topic of the page or current conversations. Note that ‘trolling’ comments or comments specifically intended to cause a rise and reaction out of others, hijack comment threads, or throw discussions off-track will not be allowed.”

The guidelines also state that users should “Post information that is accurate and true to the best of your knowledge.”

Other PBS member stations have also benefitted from establishing clear expectations.

Tory Starr, director of digital and social content innovation at GBH, said that her station has found that when users have to abide by community guidelines, the conversations “are more open and thoughtful and the engagement is at a much higher level.”

GBH’s community guidelines encourage viewers to post their experiences and opinions “regardless of ideology, religion, or political affiliation—provided these opinions advance the conversation in a constructive way.”

Prohibited behavior includes using profane, racist, sexist, or bigoted language. Users who do not abide by the rules can be blocked.

Stations have taken different approaches when it comes to where to post their community guidelines. Facebook did away with its Notes feature last year, so Rewire and Next Avenue have their community guidelines posted in the “About” section. GBH has a link posted on Facebook that takes users to another website where its full policy is posted.

For Twitter, Crews suggested using a “pinned” tweet that links to the guidelines on another website.

Although each social media channel is different, having the guidelines, or a link to them, visibly posted makes it easy to direct viewers to when comments get unruly.

In such a situation, moderators might first pin a post about the community guidelines at the top of the page, Crews said. As a next step, they might post a comment in the discussion thread emphasizing the importance of keeping the page welcoming for everyone, referencing the pinned post, and explaining that comments violating the guidelines will be removed.

If the thread veers off topic, moderators will reiterate what the intent of the article is, Crews said. For example: “Hi, this is intended to highlight X,” or “Just to clarify, the purpose of the article is to generate discussion about X & Y.”

Keeping the conversation on track requires vigilance. Crews said that if her team is not actively moderating comments, they will hear about it from the audience.

“That's why it's important to be proactive and take action when conversations become hostile,” she said.

Editor's Note: Rewire ceased publishing as of Sept. 1, 2021.

Contact Standards & Practices at standards@pbs.org

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