Contributing to the news is a crucial means of affecting public policy and getting traction on an issue. However, scientific research and media work aren’t always a perfect fit. The speed of the media world, and the small amount of space journalists have to cover complex scientific issues, can make the interaction between scientists and the press challenging. Yet scientific expertise has never been in higher demand in the mainstream media. And for scientists, the most effective means of bringing their expertise and convictions to the public is by working with the media.
Below are tips on writing op-eds, a simple and effective way to get a message to both the public and policy makers. UCS has additional information for scientists seeking to engage the news media—please see Letters to the Editor and Meeting with Editorial Boards.
Op-eds offer you a chance to get your viewpoint out in a visible way. They appear opposite the editorial page in most newspapers and are often located next to columns by syndicated writers like George Will or Ellen Goodman. Op-eds are unsolicited articles written by people not affiliated with the paper—from business executives and scientists to school kids and interested local citizens.
It is often difficult to get an op-ed published in a newspaper. There is limited space for them and editors receive a larger number of unsolicited articles. You might consider other options first, as op-eds take more effort and time than a letter to the editor, for example.
Just like a good essay, op-eds have an introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction should grab the reader and encourage him or her to read on. Use timely references, colorful language, and metaphors to get the reader's attention. Try to limit the introductory paragraph to three sentences.
The body of the piece further develops your thesis, giving some background and context. Keep each paragraph short and focused. Each paragraph should range from three to five sentences. Try to make one point in each paragraph, and be sure each paragraph flows into the next smoothly. Every paragraph should tie back to the introduction and your overall thesis. Be sure not to get off-track or follow tangents.
The final paragraph should wrap up the piece. Do not leave any dangling ends. Tie everything up and close with a kick. Your conclusion should link to your introduction, carrying the same theme but adding something new. Use your conclusion to state your overall point or opinion. As the first sentence should grab the reader and make her/him want to continue to read, the last sentence should be memorable and make your overall point stick in the reader’s mind.
Do some research first. Before you sit down to write your op-ed, check with your local newspaper to find out the protocol for submitting opinion editorials. Many papers have strict word limits; be sure to follow them carefully. Some, but not all, papers accept op-eds by fax or email. Call your paper and ask how they prefer to receive op-ed submissions, what the word limit is, to whose attention it should be sent, and if they require any supplemental information beyond the personal information listed above. Sending an op-ed to the wrong person, one that is not the correct length, or failing to include all the information they require can keep even the best op-ed out of print.
Use a catchy title that ties into the theme of your piece. The title is what the reader sees first. Your title should entice the reader.
Keep the op-ed short and to the point. Ideally, an op-ed should be 550-725 words. Remember, newspapers have very limited space. A short article has a better chance of getting printed.
Grab the reader's attention in the first couple of lines and close with a sentence that will help him or her remember your point. Be creative—an interesting article is more likely to be printed and more likely to be remembered.
Include personal information at the end your op-ed: name, university or organization, title, phone number, address. Many papers will not run a piece without first being able to confirm that you are the author of the piece.
Follow-up. A few days after you submit your op-ed, you should place a follow-up call to the op-ed editor to check on their interest in running the article.