Published on January 30th, 2015

Comment sections are prevalent on national and local news websites in the United States. Most comment sections are designed as one column of responses organized in a vertical, or cascading, manner. Yet several news organizations have been experimenting with new formats (see, for example, The New York Times and The Washington Post).

In our study, we compared a one-column comment section to a three-column section that organized comments by whether they favored, opposed, or had questions/other comments about the legalization of marijuana. We chose marijuana legalization as it was a topic covered frequently in the news media during the time of the study.

Results showed several benefits to the three-column comment section. More thinking is needed, however, in figuring out how to best display the columns on a page.

Findings include:

  • The three-column comment section was rated more favorably than the one-column comment section.
  • Participants were more likely to leave a comment in the three-column than the one-column comment section.
  • On average, 13% of commenters left comments that were nonsensical or inappropriate (including placing the comment in the wrong column in the three-column comment section). The percentage was similar whether people saw the one- or three-column comment section.
  • The three-column comment section was less familiar to participants than the one-column section.
  • On average, participants spent one-and-a-half to two minutes with the comment sections. There was no difference in time spent with the one-column versus three-column comment section.
  • The one- and three-column comment sections did not intensify polarization or affect attitudes about marijuana.


  • Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud

    Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud

    Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is the founding and current Director of the Center for Media Engagement and Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book, Niche News: The Politics of News Choice, received the Outstanding Book Award from the International Communication Association, and inspired the early development of the Center. Her research examines the use and effects of political news content.

  • Joshua Scacco

    Joshua Scacco
    Faculty Research Associate

    Joshua M. Scacco (PhD, University of Texas at Austin, 2014) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida. He also serves as a Faculty Research Associate with the Center for Media Engagement. He specializes in political communication, media content and effects, and quantitative research methods. Josh’s research is focused on how emerging communication technologies influence established agents in American political life, including news organizations and the presidency. Before joining USF, Josh served on the faculty at Purdue University, worked in public relations at the state and federal level, and worked for a member of legislative leadership in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as well as a U.S. senator.