The Coral Project’s Sydette Harry: ‘People feel that journalism doesn’t seem to listen’

With the rise of social media and Internet trolling, the relationship between communities and journalism is more important than ever, Harry says.

The Coral Project distributed this sticker at MozFest 2016. Credit: Alexandra Ma

We love the Internet because it’s a treasure chest of information, and a place where we can join groups to communicate with people who share our interests, no matter how niche the subject or how scattered about the world we might be.

As journalists, social media and online communities are places to discover new stories and trends, find experts and learn more about our readers.

But in the age of political division, trolling and fake news, we can also get frustrated on the Internet sometimes because open platforms — like Facebook and Twitter when left on public settings — can leave us vulnerable to abuse and hatred that which we never signed up for.

With this dichotomy in mind, what should be the relationship between journalism and community? Interhacktives’ Alexandra Ma chatted with Sydette Harry, community lead at the Coral Project, a joint collaboration by Mozilla, the Washington Post and New York Times to provide open source tools for newsrooms to engage with their readers.

Why do you think communities that allow comments are important for journalism?

Our focus isn’t that every community allows comments, but that some sort of feedback, some sort of interaction is necessary for good journalism. That can be comments. That’s important because it gives you a way to get a more complete and continuous relationship with your readers.

What we are constantly thinking about is how journalism now, more than ever, needs everyone, and good journalism needs to be open and transparent to people, and needs to be verified. The way you do that is by having a continuous dialogue and discourse.

Now that can be comments — we would like it if it were comments — but most importantly, we would like people to really consider what it means to have a community and to plan on it. Because too often people say, “we will let social do it” but they don’t also say, “what does ‘let social do it’ mean?”

What can these other interactions between journalists and readers be, and how can journalists learn from that?

Some of the great research fun that I have is talking to people about the different ways they connect. There is one website I love called Bitter Southerner, which publishes content dedicated to the South [of the US]. They don’t have comments, but you can become a card-carrying “Bitter Southerner”. You can pay to support their journalism and have meetups, get discounts with southern artisanal makers and concerts, and get books — and they have no comments. But it makes being part of the community a tactile thing that focuses on your interests. So if you were concerned enough to be a Bitter Southerner, you get to participate in southern crafts and southern concerts.

It’s not always in comments, but the journalism is supported. The community is created. And with that, people tell them things. People think about things and go, “I’m going to go here first because even if it’s not comments, I know that these people have invested in making connections with me. When I have a story, I talk to people because it’s obvious in the way they have set up the connection to their business. They care about what I think.”

Also, comments aren’t always the best way to get information from people. Marginalised populations, specifically women and people of colour, don’t like comments because comments have historically been so awful and racist. But they will respond more directly to direct solicitations: “Tell me about an experience of racism you’ve had.” “Tell me about your mother’s favourite recipe.” “Tell me about your immigrant stories.” “Tell me about what you are excited about college.”

People will notice suddenly they have so many more comments, so many more interactions. They will even get people to say: “I don’t comment but I don’t mind talking to you.” It’s about opening up the ways and letting people know that you are open to the ways you want to talk to them.

“Why are there so many layers between you [journalists] and your readers?”

Why don’t you think journalists can rely on social media to get feedback and interact more with their readers?

Think about the way we do social media, even as journalists. Sometimes we’re thinking out loud, sometimes we’re super directed, sometimes we might be angry. A lot of that is on social, where we may not always be in our most linear of thoughts and focused. And that’s fine — that’s what people use social for.

But how do you start connecting your readers to each other around similar topics? A lot of that on social now has been things that readers have modified social for, like hashtags. Hashtags were something readers developed to be able to follow conversation and this is all information that lives on social. These important things aren’t on your site. They’re not a relationship you’re building with your community — they are things that you are going to a third party to see and then bringing it back to your platform because your readers are commenting on things that they found on your platform.

Why are there so many layers between you and your readers? Is that what you actually want? Your data is also on a third-party platform — it should be your data. It’s your content. And even though it’s on a third-party platform — Twitter or Facebook or whatever the third-party platform is — readers’ opinions of their experiences on these platforms is transferred to journalism. It’s transferred to the newspaper or the website or the network that they are talking and interacting with. And that’s the kind of relationship we think you [journalists] should own.

The Coral Project’s products, as outlined on its website. (Credit: Coral Project)


The tools of Coral are “Trust”, “Ask” and “Talk”. They handle what we think are three very important sections of community building.

[Editor’s note: Check out the Coral Project’s website and public Trello board for more information about its tools and goals.

Not everybody should have comments. But we want to improve tools that will allow you to get to the core of it, which is: how do you honestly and transparently represent and provide good journalism, and get good feedback and integrate that into journalism as part of a growing and continued relationship with the community you claim or with the audience you are searching for?


What is the relationship between journalists and readers like now?  What would you want to change?

I think it depends on the site, it depends on who you are, it depends on what you feel. I know a lot of people feel that sometimes journalism only shows up when they’re having the worst moment of their lives.

I’m an immigrant from a very tiny South American country, Guyana. People don’t often talk about it, and when they talk about it, it’s usually, “Hey, it’s flooding.” Or that there are lots of deportations, or corruption, or something like that, rather than “oh it’s a beautiful, we have a nearly-1,000-year history and it’s geographically biodiverse, and we have had communities in New York, Philly and Canada for quite some time.”

Journalism doesn’t show up for those things — it shows up for the horror. And people often feel that journalism doesn’t seem to listen. Journalists will say, “I never ever read the comments,” and some of them have perfectly good reasons. Comments have been terrible to them. If you are a person of colour or a woman journalist, comments in some places are horrific for you. They’re utterly horrific and not reading them does you a form of self-preservation.

“A lot of people feel that sometimes journalism only shows up when they’re having the worst moment of their lives.”

On the other hand, there are people who have fallen under fantastic communities from their comments, who have gotten book deals, who have been able to help people with healthcare, who have been able to help people with legal aid, who have supported funerals from the comments.

I remember that a friend introduced me to Bitter Southerner. She’s from Atlanta, I am not Southern in any way, shape or form. I am a first-generation American, so a lot of the South is not personally [related] to me, but I like the way the community [writes], and when they said “hey, you have to pay or we may not survive,” I paid. It was worth it to me to sustain the model.

The community, monetarily, can sustain you. It can also allow — when members are interested and willing to contribute — for different types of fascinating journalism. Bitter Southerner did a wonderful piece about coal refuse that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. They did pieces about the origin of hot fried chicken or music streets that were mostly supported by their community.

One of the big things that we’ve been talking about post-election is the creation of echo chambers and filter bubbles. Is that a risk that comes with building communities?

A filter bubble isn’t a community.

When you think of communities, and when you think of them outside of journalism, we think of them in our own lives. They don’t consist of like-minded people: they’re bonded people, they’re people who have chosen or have, by circumstance, are together, but that doesn’t necessarily make them all the same. One of the big jokes I always make about communities is: think of your last big family dinner.

How well did that go? You’ve got maybe 30 minutes before the lifelong battle between Auntie M and Auntie G came up again because both of them had a glass of wine at decided they wanted to have that fight again. You would prefer that they not have the fight. Somebody will separate them before dishes go flying, and everyone’s doing their job. But it’s reality.

We don’t have to sit here and have discussions where everyone agrees. We do have to have discussions where people’s humanity is respected. We read everything here at Coral. How horribly people talk about each other! Depending on what side of the spectrum you’re on, [the reaction] goes from, “well that was really mean,” to “that is some of the most dehumanising, racist, homophobic language I have ever seen.” And communities, I think, should be for the expression of views where humanity is respected.

“One of the big jokes I always make about communities is: think of your last big family dinner.”

I have my political views. If anyone Googles me for more than two seconds, you can pretty much figure out my political views. But when I step into a journalistic community, I know what is expected of me to behave or how I’m supposed to behave, and I know that the person, even if we are diametrically opposed, is being held to the same expectations. That will be enforced, and the person who has to do that [the moderator] has the tools to do that without harming themselves. And we can present and interact with, at our own will and desire, the sections of our community that best represent that.

Too often, when people talk about the Internet or making a better Internet, they talk about making a “nicer” or “more civil” Internet. I think it’s a good position to have. There are some amazing civil comments doing some really good work with comments.

But I always feel that, for certain spaces, it’s not about whether or not we are civil to each other, or [whether we] necessarily agree on everything. It’s that we know what we expect and can control our experiences.

“A person has a right to be racist. A person has a right to be awful. They do not have a right to make me listen to it.”

The problems with harassment, when it tips over, is that I can no longer control my experiences. I don’t want to talk to this person, but your platform won’t let me not talk to this person. I don’t want this person to see me, but you’re preventing me from saying that. I don’t think this is a real person, I think this is a bot, and I’m doing more work in finding that out than you are.

A person has a right to be racist. A person has a right to be awful. They do not have a right to make me listen to it. And a platform has a right to be racist. They have the right to be for one group only. But they have to be clear about that, and they have to be direct with that. No person should go into a platform expecting one thing and being promised one thing, and getting something completely different, often to the terms of abuse, and not have a way to address that and not have the platform stand by that.

So if I tell you, “we’re not going to have this language,” even if it’s just a social contract and not legally binding, I’ve made you a promise. I should keep that promise. And if I don’t keep that promise, there should be a way for us to talk about why it didn’t happen. That, I think is community — less than “we all have the same filter bubbles.”

Filter bubbles come from the place where we stop trying to develop ways to talk to each other at all. Nobody has figured out who’s supposed to step into that void of “we’re gonna have to talk to each other at some point or we have to at least come to agree on basic facts.”

The Coral Project’s end goal users, as outlined on its website. (Credit: Coral Project)

I have also received pretty bad and scarring comments, so I appreciate the Coral Project’s aims.

I’m a Twitter veteran and some of my harassment has made it into national and international news. It’s really trippy and it’s not fun. I think it’s a thing that we could do better at protecting against. I’m a very large free speech advocate.

I don’t like it when people are banned for speaking what they believe, or saying what they say. I will spend the rest of my life at the top of my lungs, and possibly throw hands if necessary, to fight them about it — but they have a right.

Too often, the idea of “we’re going to push it onto Facebook” or “we’re going to push it onto social” is less about protecting or developing good spaces for conversations, but more about being “I’m not the one responsible for this one. Good luck.”

We are responsible. We are the people who have said: “This is what we want to do: we want to tell the world about itself.” So we have to tell the world about itself truthfully. But we can do that without causing random [access] harm to everyone, and usually to the most marginalised. I believe we can. But I also am very famous for being overly hopeful.

“We are the people who have said: ‘We want to tell the world about itself.'”

What is the journalist’s role in online communities? Are they community members, are they also contributing, are they asking the questions? What’s their role?

Journalists are all sorts of things. People are using our tools, which is very exciting. In one of our tools, created with Bocoup, you can choose an emoticon and one thing you want the president-elect to concentrate on. And they have been getting good with that.

We [Coral Project] have a community online, we make newsletters, we go to conferences and we talk to people. We also counsel. In trying to build around a community, we also hope to form a community of people who are like, “you know what, we want to talk about this. Usually people don’t think it’s important but we’re going to think it’s important.”

There are some journalists who look at us and say, “you are very sweet, I’m never going to use this.” And that’s fine. That is OK. But we want that to be a discussion we’re having, and not just a quiet thing where we’re going, “comments are terrible, we’re not going to do anything about it” or “comments are terrible, we’re not going to talk about how they got that way.”

Journalism is so important, now more than ever. We want to work toward bringing people back to interacting and trusting journalism, because they know that this is part of their lives.

The Coral Project outlines its goals and needs on its public Trello board. (Credit: Coral Project/Trello)

Do you think journalists are losing trust in their readers?

I think readers are losing trust in us [journalists]. We have numbers on it. They don’t trust us. And part of that is because they don’t know us, or they don’t know what we do.

There are ways for us to be connected to our readers and inform our readers and do the intelligent and vital work of journalism without being so disconnected. People are like, “once I give people what they want, I’ll have to give them simple, bad journalism.” I don’t think that’s true. I think you can give people a connection so that they trust the journalism you give without having to dumb it down.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

TOP IMAGE: The Coral Project distributed this sticker at their workshop at MozFest 2016.

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