Op-Eds: A Crash Course

Uncategorized Mar 05, 2020

by Lisa Rampton Halverson, MWEG Education Limb Director, and Meredith Grunke Gardner, MWEG Media Literacy Team Lead

Op-eds can be some of the most thought-provoking — and controversial — sections of news publications, both in print and online. Last month, MWEG’s media literacy team set out to clarify what op-eds are (you might be surprised what the “op” stands for), how they can be useful (and not so useful), and why and how you can find your voice and write your own.

What are op-eds?

Many newspapers have an opinion section, which operates completely separately from the rest of the paper and which publishes “several different types of content in the spirit of presenting a wide range of viewpoints and to encourage thoughtful debate” (Des Moines Register).

The opinion editorial board publishes official editorials and then, in what originally meant “opposite the editorial page” (physically and symbolically), a page of op-eds (and letters to the editor). Some papers have regular op-ed columnists, but they bring in outside voices as well. Op-eds usually do not contain more than 800 words, and the writer is generally considered to be some kind of expert on the topic. (In comparison, letters to the editor are generally 150-300 words and are the most “democratic” of these forms, being open to all.) While op-eds are opinion pieces, good op-eds should cite sources. We will discuss the qualities of strong op-eds in future posts.

“For Mr. [James] Bennett, [the current editorial page editor at the New York Times], Op-Ed articles are meant to push readers into considering points of view just outside their comfort zone. ‘The goal is to supply readers with a steady stream of big ideas and provocative arguments, and to entertain them,’ he said. ‘It should be an exciting experience and often a challenging one'” (New York Times).

Why are op-eds great?

Op-eds show us different ways of interpreting current events and illuminate issues that authors may feel are not getting enough media attention. They are often well reasoned and persuasive. Unlike a news article, which reports on the opinions and expertise of individuals, op-eds are usually written by the experts themselves. Op-ed writers usually have more space to explain their unfiltered viewpoint than they would in a news article. A well-penned op-ed can be powerful and can get shared widely, and according to one study conducted by Yale University, op-eds have been shown to change minds in a long-lasting way.

Finally, since MWEG wants to support members in writing their own op-eds, it is worth noting that reading exemplary op-eds helps us learn how to write them. Pulitzer.org lists the Pulitzer Prize winners for commentary as well as their submitted columns.

Why should we be cautious when reading an op-ed?

Op-eds are not news. In fact, the editorial section of a reputable newspaper is completely separate from the news side to prevent the opinion section from influencing (or even appear to influence) the more objective news side. Opinion pieces should be clearly labeled as opinion to avoid reader confusion. (See this instance when the distinction was not clear.) A reputable opinion editor should require op-ed writers to adhere to the same journalistic standards as news writers. (See also NPR’s handbook of ethics or this collection of resources.) For example, op-ed writers should not deliberately distort facts or context and should provide attribution to their sources. Op-ed authors should always disclose any conflicts of interest.

Any good op-ed should cite sources and back up claims with evidence. However, because many op-eds are written by people not employed by the newspaper, they may not be held to the same standards as professional journalists. Even if sources are cited, remember that the op-ed’s author selected those sources to support the argument s/he is trying to make. There may be equally or even more valid evidence that may disprove their argument or show a point of view the author neglected. This can result in slant, a type of media bias that “describes when journalists tell only part of a story. It can include cherry-picking information or data to support one side. Slant prevents readers from getting the full story, and narrows the scope of our understanding.” Reputable news publications will allow opportunities for those from other points of view to refute an argument made on the opinion page.

This places the burden on us, the readers. If events or sources are referenced, we can use a search engine to look more deeply into the matter. What do more balanced news articles say about the issue or event, and what is this op-ed writer contributing to the discussion? When we read an op-ed, we should look for how the writer is connected to the issue and any potential conflicts of interest s/he may have. We can be careful to either not share on social media op-eds that have not used sources or to accompany our shares with additional resources, acknowledging any slant. Finally, we can attempt to widen our perspective by reading opposing viewpoints on the same issues and events.

How can we thoughtfully balance viewpoints and form our own opinions?

As previously cited, op-eds have been scientifically shown to have the power to sway opinion over the long-term. However, when reading op-eds, it’s important to keep in mind several factors to ensure that if our opinions do change, it’s because they are founded in fact:

  • Understand confirmation bias: Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that reinforces our pre-existing beliefs. Part of being media literate is maintaining a degree of intellectual humility, which means we acknowledge that we don’t know everything and are open to information that may challenge what we think we know. Be open to reading op-eds and editorials that do not match your personal point of view, as this helps us avoid confirmation bias.
  • Be self-aware of emotions: If an article incites a strong emotional reaction, take that as a red flag and pause before sharing or commenting. When our brain is overwhelmed by emotion, we are not as prone to use reasoning. Strong emotions are a signal that readers should take extra time to verify the claims being made in an article, whether it be news or opinion.
  • Notice logical fallacies: Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning. Op-ed writers may use logical fallacies to defend their point of view, at times convincingly. But ultimately logical fallacies weaken an argument. Familiarize yourself with different types of logical fallacies — such as straw man, circular arguments, sweeping generalizations, red herrings — so you can recognize when an author’s argument may not be as strong as it seems.

How to write your own op-ed

We encourage members of MWEG to share their voice publicly through op-eds, letters to the editor, and letters to members of Congress that reflect MWEG’s Principles of Peacemaking.

As you select your venue, remember that op-eds usually do not contain more than 800 words and you are more likely to be published if you can be considered to be some kind of expert on the topic. Letters to the editor are generally 150-300 words and are more “democratic,” being open to all.

Read more about such writing forms here:

Letters to the editor:

Op-eds:

If you want to write op-eds or letters to the editor for your local papers, MWEG’s Writing and Publishing lab can help you! Send your writing to OpEdLab@mweg.org or share it in the MWEG Writing and Publishing Group for writing advice, suggestions, or a sounding board to help you sort through your ideas.

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