Interview: Tracey Todd, The National Institute for Civil Discourse


Tracey Todd

Digital content curator, Tracey Todd plays a leading role at the National Institute for Civil Discourse to encourage a social media environment where US citizens can connect, have civil dialogues, and feel empowered to create outcomes from those discussions.

Q: How do you define civility at NICD?

People can have very different values and political preferences, but can still discuss these differences in a civil manner. That’s what we stand for at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

You don’t have to eliminate passion to have respectful dialogue. Civil discourse does not mean that your dialogue has to be divorced of passion or that civility is removed from enthusiasm in some way but rather it is a means of interacting respectfully and saying that even though you may feel strongly in your beliefs, you still recognize and respect another’s right to hold a differing opinion.

Tweet this: You don’t have to eliminate passion to have respectful dialogue @NICDInstitute @Viafoura #ReviveCivility

Q: How would you describe the current state of incivility online and why there’s a need to #ReviveCivility?

There is a need to revive civility, conversations, and collaborations between people who have different views, beliefs, and ideologies. We may all be different from each other but we’re also all human. And we always can find some common ground.

NICD strives to build those bridges and define civil discourse. NICD’s Campaign to Revive Civility rose out of the increasing incivility online, in the media, and in our political rhetoric. We’re seeing violence and vitriol rise to new levels and it’s unsettling to imagine what the future will be like if we don’t act now.

Q: Can you elaborate on the current research that supports the importance of civility in online discourse specifically?

There is an abundance of research that identifies that incivility is a problem in the government, media, and public. And it’s a real issue when we accept that incivility is just part of everyday life.

Generation Z – that’s 15-18 years old today – experience the highest rates of incivility compared to previous generations according to a recent study from Weber Shandwick. They also point to the internet and social media as to where they are experiencing this incivility.

This is unacceptable! And this should only add only more fuel to the fire that we need to work together to find solutions to the problem. We need to lay down the groundwork for the next generations.

Q: Can you elaborate on NICD’s recent research with the Engaging News Project on the increasing incivility in online comments?

NICD collaborated with the Engaging News Project to investigate the rising incivility in online comments and discourse around political rhetoric and conversations. We looked at comments on Reddit and YouTube along with interviewing university students from around the country.

The findings were similar to the Weber Shandwick study. People regarded incivility as just a part of online discourse. They were hesitant to engage in political discourse in fear of the trolls and abuse they might be subjected to online.

This highlights a numbing to vitriol, hate speech, and disrespect online. We begin to see this reflected in face-to-face discourse, our political rhetoric, and media environment.

Q: With incivility seemingly everywhere online, what can we do to make an impactful change?

It’s important to listen and to respect different viewpoints. Because seeking to understand is the first step to being understood.

NICD recently hosted a 3-day workshop with a diverse group of in attendance including legislators, reporters, and religious leaders. We gathered to explore and agree on effective actions to reaffirm the history of upholding and protecting religious freedom.

Tweet this: Seeking to understand is the first step to being understood @TraceyTodd @NICDInstitute

There were many misunderstandings. But we were in a room committed to finding some common ground so we had to work out these differences. We came out with a mutual understanding for where each side was coming from and a new appreciation that we might not have had before. I’m optimistic from that experience that there is the potential to inject respect back into dialogue and the way that we communicate both in person and online.

Webinar: Civility Matters

To learn more about the intersection of civility in politics, media, and online, watch our on demand webinar with NICD: Civility Matters.

Webinar On Demand: Civility Matters


Curious about the intersection of civility in media and politics and why it’s important to you?

Hear from Tracey Todd, Social Media Director from NICD, and Dan Seaman, Product Director from Viafoura as they discuss best practices to drive civil discourse between citizens, media, and the government.

This webinar will explore the following topics:

Key Takeaways

  • Leverage supporting research and campaigns to build the business case for civility
  • Gain insights on driving dialogue and respect online
  • Learn about current civility tools to revive civility and increase engagement


Don’t miss out on this webinar: Watch it now!

Interview: Penny Riordan & Katie Steiner


Penny Riordan


Katie Steiner

Penny Riordan, Director of Digital Content Partnerships at GateHouse Media and Katie Steiner, Communication Associate at Engaging News Project share their best practices for commenting, engagement, and beyond.

Q: How do you create an engaging online community?

Penny: If you haven’t already, start looking at your comments. Look for the people who are asking the questions. Ask a follow up question or state a fact – that’s how you get people to come back into the conversation.

Katie: Engagement is a two-way street between news organizations and their audiences. It’s when audiences are involved in the story process. And on the flip side, it’s when readers can connect with each other and with the news organization. It’s this connection between all the different players that makes up an engaging online community.

Tweet this: #Engagement keeps readers coming back and is good for the bottom line

Q: What are the benefits of commenting and what would you say to someone who’s turned off commenting as a feature?

Penny: Comments are a great way for readers to engage with each other and with you and your organization. And if you are going to shut down comments, you’re going to have to find another way to engage with your audience. So why eliminate an important and easy way for readers to interact on your site?

Katie: Removing comments is a rash decision. It’s what newsrooms do when they think there is no other way to fix their commenting sections.

Often, the problem is that newsrooms aren’t willing to experiment and feel they are limited in terms of resources. The Engaging News Project is here to tell you that there are strategies you can use that don’t require a whole lot of resources. There’s things like Quizzes and the Respect Button that can make all the different when it comes to engagement.

Tweet this: #Comments are an important and easy way for readers to interact on your site

Q: What is the the role journalists and editors play in creating an engaging and civil online community?

Katie: Journalists and editors involvement is really important.

If you have an Audience Engagement Specialist, it’s not just their responsibility to create an engaging and civil online community. It’s the newsroom’s job too and this means journalists and editors. When the newsroom works together, they can create a better experience for everyone.

Engagement is good for the bottom line. It keeps readers coming back and ultimately increases revenues.

Tweet this: When newsrooms engage with their readers and vice versa, they create a better experience for everyone

Q: Was there a lot of educating you had to do internally around engagement and commenting and if so what approaches did you take?

Penny: We delivered several presentations to our newsroom. Added to that, there was one training with the Engaging News Project on comment moderation and best practices, which really helped us turn a corner.

We took the time to train digital editors who were focused on the front line to give them the tools that they needed to jump into the comment sections. We found that often journalists just don’t know where to start and digital editors can be afraid to share their opinions. So we had to overcome this problem. We helped by talking them through those canned responses. Phases like “Thanks for reaching out” and “Good question” can help newsrooms engage with the right users.

I can’t tell you how important it is to us at GateHouse Media to continue emphasizing to our newsrooms the benefits of engaging with our audiences.

Katie: And to help make that case, I would encourage everyone to connect with us and check out our research. Share with us your experience and best practices! The Engaging News Project is always looking for new ideas and feedback from journalists, editors, and people who are interested in engagement.

To learn more about research-supported methods of engagement, civility, and moderation, watch our on demand webinar: A New Approach to Engagement.

Webinar On Demand: A New Approach to Engagement

Watch the webinar on demand now — featuring Penny Riordan, Director of Digital Content Partnerships from GateHouse Media, Katie Steiner, Communication Associate from the Engaging News Project, and Dan Seaman, Product Director from Viafoura.

A New Approach to Engagement explores the following topics:

Key Takeaways

  • How to leverage the supporting research to build your Business Case for Engagement
  • Tactics and tools to increase engagement and grow your community
  • The motivations behind civil commenters online and how to model their behaviours
  • Strategies to move engagement beyond commenting
  • The future of online engagement and the four Cs of Smart Moderation

Don’t miss out on this webinar, watch it here: