BY MARY JOHNSON
Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge.
The original version of this article ran in the May/June, 1999 issue of Ragged Edge.
On March 17, 1999, the opinion page of the Chicago Tribune ran an article by Not Dead Yet's Diane Coleman. "It's Not Compassion, It's Contempt," ran the headline. The article discussed why many disability rights activists are opposed to assisted suicide.
That same day, The San Diego Union Tribune carried an opinion article focusing on disability rights as well. Headlined "Redefining the nature of disabilities and needs," this one focused on issues underlying the Cedar Rapids Supreme Court opinion which had recently been announced. This op-ed article was written by Bill Stothers and me as part of our work with The Center for An Accessible Society.
You have likely read an opinion article from a disability leader in your newspaper or in a national publication like The Washington Post in the past year or so. In July, 2000, many newspapers ran op-ed pieces on the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Opinion articles--sometimes called "op-ed" articles--are an excellent way to get the disability rights perspective into the news. (The word "op-ed" means "opposite the editorial page," which is where opinion articles run). They carry more weight and authority than letters to the editor, and it's not a difficult process to prepare one that will be accepted by your local newspaper.
Here are some tips:
1. Write the body of your op-ed piece anytime, like NOW!! If you prepare the "meat" of your op-ed in advance, you can move quickly when a disability news event makes it likely that your local newspaper will be amenable to printing an "opinion" or "perspective" article.
"Editors want op-eds that are 600 words or less as a rule," says the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers' Director of Media Relations, Matt Taggart, whose op-eds have run in The Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. "If they are longer, and you are famous, they may print it anyway," he adds -- but your best bet is in sticking to the 600-word rule.
Draft the meat of your argument, coming up with a good idea and developing it to a strong conclusion.
Read lots of op-eds to see how they're constructed. You'll see that they relate to something that was just in the news, but that they advance an opinion as well.
But a good op-ed "is never really pure opinion," Taggart reminds us. Your arguments must be supported by factual information. Fresh facts "sell" an op-ed piece to editors. Your facts establish you as an "expert commentator."
Once you have the "meat" of your op-ed, wait for a good "news hook" -- for example, when a national poll comes out saying that 56 percent of Americans favor assisted suicide, or when the U.S. Supreme Court announces the date it will hear arguments in an important disability case.
The key here is "news hook." The issue you are commenting on should be in the news. If it hasn't been in the news, chances are that editors won't be interested in an op-ed piece on it, either.
Use this "news hook" and lead your op-ed with that.
Taggart says that an op-ed article should be "in the traditional three-point essay format with a news-hook oriented intro and very brief conclusion." About a third of your piece should be the hard factual material that will sell you to editors as an expert.
If you have most of this material written already, you can just add the news-hook intro at the start, and have a piece ready to go to the newspaper. Quickly.
And quick is essential. Crucial, in fact.
If you're a recognized expert, or a national disability rights leader, you should aim big -- The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or your big city newspaper. Any big paper will do -- but it makes sense that if the Supreme Court case is coming out of California, you might find that a big California paper like the Los Angeles Times is interested in your op-ed. Don't forget your local hometown paper, though. It's easier to start locally.
Right now, before any news breaks, is the time to get the facts on where to send op-eds at the various papers. Call them or look online for the information. (Our link to many U.S. newspapers is at http://www.mediacircus.org/usnewslinks.htm.) Most papers make this information readily available. Most will take your piece by fax or even email. Fastest is best. Get all this checked out well in advance -- keep a list in your computer with contacts for various papers and a note as to how they want their op-eds sent to them.
5. The moment a news event happens, fire up that op-ed, write that first paragraph and get it to the newspaper within 12 hours of the news event. The quicker the better.
6. What editors want is:
b) a well-stated point of view with a topical beginning hooked to the news
c) the view of somebody with "standing" (what are your credentials? Notice the "biolines" at the end of op-ed pieces and write yours--short and pithy--in the same style)
d) the correct length -- about 600 words.
If you do b, c, and d, but don't get your get your piece in until 10 days after the event, it's too late. Don't bother. Even two days later is often too late. It's old news by then.
Start stocking your pantry with the ingredients for your instant op-ed pieces now! You can use essentially the same "meat" and write a number of different op-eds by moving paragraphs around and such, adding new facts or statistics that freshen it up. Remember, the new part has to be the beginning, where it hooks onto some breaking news event.
Remember these tips:
Boil your argument down to three major points.
Use simple, short sentences.
Avoid fancy words and jargon.
Lop off dangling clauses.
Eliminate passives (example: Change "This bill was written by Senator Blow Hard" to "Senator Blow Hard wrote this bill."). Make your paragraphs short--no more than three sentences each.
Close on a strong note.
A short, powerful last paragraph should drive your point home.
The moment Big News happens, you'll be able to tack on a news hook and ship your op-ed piece to the newspapers.
Info on submitting opinion pieces to the top 100 U.S. Newspapers at the Communications Consortium website.