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Getting Your Op-Ed Published: Lessons From A Media Advocate

March 13, 2019 | Daphne Marvel, Berkeley Media Studies Group | Originally published by Berkeley Media Studies Group.

Have you ever picked up a newspaper and flipped through the opinion pages, or clicked on the opinion section of your favorite news outlet’s website, and wondered how a non-journalist came to have their story published? Op-eds provide a platform for members of the public to make their voices heard. Whether you’re an advocate who wants to expand the dialogue on an issue, or an academic who sees a gap in the current conversation around your area of expertise, op-eds provide an opportunity to have your ideas and perspective amplified.

These opinion pieces are a powerful tool not only for bringing public health and social justice issues to the public’s attention, but also for reaching policymakers and promoting concrete policy solutions. Yet this media advocacy strategy often goes overlooked.

When we research the news here at PHI's Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG), we always look at what percentage of stories on public health and social justice issues are news versus opinion coverage. Usually, we find that the majority of them are news articles and few are opinion pieces. This points to an important lesson for advocates: There is an opportunity to expand the frame or shift the narrative around your issue by contributing an op-ed to a newspaper or other news outlet.

While getting an op-ed placed is no small feat, once you know what goes into writing and submitting one of these pieces, having your own published is within reach.

A recent example comes from Michael Bakal, a former BMSG trainer, whose op-ed was published in the Sacramento Bee at the end of 2018. Michael, who previously founded a nonprofit in Guatemala, co-wrote the piece with Professor Lisa Maya Knauer, chairwoman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Their op-ed about the tragic deaths of two young Guatemalan children who were in U.S. Border Patrol custody demonstrates how advocates can use the opinion pages to respond to high-profile news issues—and provide much-needed context and history.

Here are some tips to increase your likelihood of getting an op-ed published, drawing both from Michael’s recent experience and BMSG’s experience of working with advocates around the country over the past 26 years.

Consider newsworthiness.

The qualities that attract a reporter to a news issue can also persuade an opinion page editor to run your piece. Your op-ed is more likely to be published if it’s timely, takes a strong stand, localizes a national story, presents new information, connects to a personal story, or relates to a meaningful anniversary or milestone.

In Michael’s case, timing was critical. Responding successfully to news stories involves a combination of planning for action and serendipity. Michael and his co-author, Lisa Maya Knauer, actually tried publishing their piece twice. The first time was after learning of the death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín; however, it was not published, and Michael suspects that this was because they waited too long and the timeliness had diminished. “Jakelin’s death was followed a few weeks later by the death of another Guatemalan child, Felipe Gómez Alonso, in Border Patrol custody on Christmas day. It was another heartbreaking story,” said Michael, discussing the impetus for trying to get their op-ed published again. “This time, we wasted no time updating the piece, adding in a holiday peg: Christmas.”

Make a compelling case.

Explain what is at stake for the individuals, organizations, or communities involved. Tell stories that help to paint a vivid picture of the issue, and describe what should be done, when, and by whom to solve the problem. It also helps if you can speak from personal experience or professional authority, which may mean inviting influential individuals or organizations to submit or co-author your op-ed.

Michael’s article, for example, highlighted the many threats facing families in rural Guatemala and invoked his connection to the issue: “As members of a human rights delegation organized by the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, we visited a rural hamlet of Q’eqchi subsistence farmers in Alta Verapaz—not far from Jakelin’s home town—several months ago,” Michael said. “Families there told us that they felt like prisoners in their own homes not only due to endemic poverty and racism but because transnational agribusiness, hydroelectric, and mining companies are using armed assaults and sexual violence to steal their lands.”

Be persistent.

Writing an op-ed and getting it placed often takes a lot of time and energy, and it can be discouraging not to see immediate results. “To get [the op-ed] published, I had to constantly follow the story as it developed, reading as many outlets as possible and making small tweaks to keep the article updated,” Michael said. “I found I had to mostly drop everything to focus on the op-ed. It took more persistence and many more hours of work than I thought it would.” Ultimately, that persistence paid off and resulted in widespread exposure for the issue Michael wanted to elevate.

Tailor your pitch.

Rather than simply sending in the text of your proposed op-ed, it should be pitched. “The pitch is just a short email saying what the op-ed is about, why the issue is of interest to readers, who we are, and why we are credible voices on the issue, followed by the text of the proposed op-ed in the body of the same email,” Michael explained.

Honor exclusivity requirements.

Many newspapers will require “exclusivity,” meaning they will consider publishing your op-ed only if it hasn’t been submitted to other papers. But if they don’t respond, how long do you have to wait before moving on to the next paper? We suggest waiting 24 hours.

Be responsive.

Once you have submitted your op-ed, make sure you will be available in the following hours and days to respond quickly to any follow-up questions or requests from reporters. “I learned reporters tend to follow up via phone, so include your number in the pitch email, and keep your phone on!” Michael said.

He also highlighted the need to work quickly once your story has been accepted. “When the reporter said he needed final edits approved by 4, he meant it. I had to bail on lunch plans so I could review his proposed edits.” At the end of the process, one of the editors let Michael and his co-author review the newspaper’s updated version, which was generous and not standard practice for many newspapers. For this reason, Michael said that at this stage it’s important not to “quibble over details.” Instead, he suggested only catching errors or proposing quick fixes.

Reuse the news.

If your op-ed gets printed, increase its impact by circulating it to allies, policymakers, reporters, and funders. Getting published adds credibility and legitimacy to your issue and makes it easier for fellow supporters to voice similar sentiments. Michael and his co-author plan to send their op-ed to a lawmaker’s staff in advance of an in-person meeting to urge her to support legislation that addresses the root causes of migration in Guatemala. Additionally, Michael shared the op-ed with colleagues and advocates, as well as with a wider audience on social media.

Have you seen a good op-ed recently? Have you ever had one published? BMSG wants to hear from you! Share your examples with us at info@bmsg.org, on Facebook, or on Twitter @BMSG.