Writing an Op-Ed

Op-eds are your chance to speak through the news media directly to policymakers, your constituents, and other target audiences. Papers will run op-eds from a range of sources, including experts, community voices, advocates, and those directly affected by issues. It is important for you to make the case as to why your voice should be included, providing biographical information and credentials and a persuasive argument about why your point of view is timely. The Value, Problem, Solution, Action formulation can also be helpful in drafting a persuasive op-ed.

Check the paper’s guidelines. Outlets usually include op-ed guidelines on their websites, including information about desired length and how to submit. It is important to follow their guidelines closely, both to avoid the risk of rejection over technicalities and unwarranted editing due to length.

Below is an op-ed by The Opportunity Agenda’s Executive Director Alan Jenkins, along with annotation on the communications choices it reflects.

Dallas Morning News

Op-ed: Media distortions and the Trayvon Martin case 

By Alan Jenkins

March 29, 2012

The mainstream media have played a mostly positive role in covering the tragic and senseless killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year- old African-American boy shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida. After a slow start, reporters have uncovered new facts and asked tough questions. 

A timely intro. Draw the reader in with a reference to current events, a quick anecdote or metaphor that helps set the stage for the point you want to make. 

To their credit, the media have largely covered Trayvon’s grieving and outraged parents with the dignity and humanity they deserve. They have also interviewed community residents, largely white, who have spoken out with grief and outrage over the incident. 

Shared values. Here Jenkins leads with the common human experience of loss, and the value of dignity with which we all want to be treated. 

But the media, both news and popular, have also had a hand in creating the mind-set that leads to tragedies like this one, based on the facts currently available. A new report by The Opportunity Agenda reviewing a decade of research finds that media depictions of black men and boys are too frequently distorted in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes and lead to discriminatory treatment. 

Frame the problem as a threat to values. A lack of human and dignified treatment of black men and boys is the problem here. 

Those distorted depictions occur across almost all types of media, including news reporting, entertainment, advertising, and even video games. Repeated unbalanced media portrayals of black men and boys, the report finds, contribute to distorted perceptions, antagonism, and discriminatory treatment. They increase public support for punitive approaches to issues involving black males and increase public tolerance of racial inequality. 

A central thesis. State your central point clearly and focus all supporting evidence on further illuminating it. 

In particular, black men and boys are disproportionately depicted in news media as perpetrators of violent crime, when compared with actual arrest rates. They are underrepresented in the more sympathetic roles of victim and law enforcement officers. 

Supporting evidence. The rule of threes applies to your supporting evidence, try to use three compelling examples, statistics, or anecdotes best supporting the thesis. 

... [Excerpted] 

To be sure, the mass media are not the only factor that shapes people’s conscious and subconscious beliefs and biases. But decades of research make clear that distorted media depictions persist and are among the contributing factors to tragedies like the one in Florida. 

Acknowledging the opposition. A good tactic in outlining your argument is to acknowledge the main opposing argument to your point, thus addressing questions that may be running through the reader’s mind. 

Fortunately, the mass media can also be part of the solution. Of course, the responsibility is not the media’s alone. But the media, as the public looking glass, can and should show the full spectrum of the lives of black men and boys. Media biases and their effects neither absolve nor convict George Zimmerman, who should answer to the legal system. But for most people, having the full picture will result in greater knowledge and fewer irrational fears of innocent black teenagers like Trayvon Martin. 

Solution. Be sure to identify the steps that are needed to address the problem you describe, and who should take those steps.

Closing. Leave the reader with something to ponder while reiterating your point one final time. It should be noted that the inclusion of forceful and creative introductions and closings should not preclude your main point. If a metaphor is too difficult to follow, or an anecdote focuses readers’ attention on its details, your point is likely to be lost.