Editorials: How to Write Opinion Journalism

What is an editorial?

The “lead editorial” represents the official collective position of the editorial board of a news publication.

More generally, an editorial is a special genre of journalism that aims to inform, persuade, and/or entertain through a well-written short essay. 

Like other forms of journalism, an editorial uses quotes, facts, and logic to inform readers, and its content is still covered by ethical principles (such as fairness and libel). Unlike a hard news story (which aims for a neutral point of view), an editorial defends an opinion, which could be a non-partisan message about the importance of voting, but could also mean explaining why one candidate is better suited for an elected position than the other candidates.

Opinions that the editors express on the editorial page should stay there — they should not affect any of the news coverage. Individual reporters shouldn’t slant their stories to reflect or rebut editorial opinions.

Examples:

Note how the webmasters have included the word “Editorial” or “Guest Column” in the headline, so that people sharing links won’t mistake these opinion pieces for neutral news stories. 

Related Terms

  • column: a regularly scheduled article, usually containing an opinion, and often driven by the personality of the author. (Example: Dave Barry)
  • op-ed (guest editorial): a persuasive essay written by a named, individual author, such as a managing editor or other newspaper employee, or a prominent figure from the community. So named because it traditionally appeared on the page opposite the editorials; it is not necessarily the “opposing view” of anyone else’s argument. (LA Times Op-Ed page; op-ed written by an AI bot)
  • news analysis: a journalist’s thoughtful response to news coverage. It might explain in detail how one of the paper’s own reporters made a big mistake, and it ends with a recommendation. 
  • letter to the editor: a short essay written by a member of the general public, usually responding to a specific story. 

Opinion in Editorials

While you may put a bumper sticker on your car or ad a hashtag to your social media profile  in order to show your allegiance to an issue or philosophy, in the context of persuasive writing, repeating a slogan does not count as presenting an opinion.

My Seton Hill colleagues Michael Carey and Frank Klapak often talk about the difference between your gut reaction to an issue (“Smoking is bad!” or “Don’t tell me what to do!”), and your thoughtful, considered opinion (“A law that prohibits all smoking within 200 yards of school property places an undue burden on school employees with a physical disability, who may have to drive off campus for their smoking breaks, and unfairly makes criminals out of smokers who happen to own houses near school property.”)

An array of bumper-sticker slogans that support one side of an ongoing debate (abortion, smoking, Iraq) does not constitute a political editorial; neither does a list of rhetorical questions (“Does the president think the American people are stupid, or is he just too clueless to know how ridiculous his health care reform really sounds?” or “How does a rich, powerful woman like [name your target] manage to fool so many idiots into thinking she understands the concerns of the working class?”). These are attacks, not thoughtful approaches to exploring how and why diverse groups of people respond in various ways to a complex idea.

Case Study

A few years ago, a student began an editorial assignment with a draft that was really a rant: “Why are so many classes at SHU only offered every other year?”  While his frustration was understandable, his first draft made no attempt to answer that question — he simply vented his anger, and announced that more courses should be offered every year.

I encouraged him to do what reporters do — find answers.

He talked to some faculty members about the issue, investigating the pros and cons of offering courses more frequently, and and he learned that if these every-other-year courses were offered every year, they would be much less likely to fill up, and therefore more likely to be canceled.

If 10 people take a course that’s offered every other year, then probably only 5 people would take it if it were offered every year.  Now, I personally would love to teach classes to only 5 students… but then who would teach all the other courses, the ones that 20 or 40 students need each semester?  We’d have to hire more faculty members to teach those courses.  Where would the money come from to pay for those additional faculty members?  From higher tuition, of course.

There’s usually a reason why things are the way they are. Sometimes it’s a pretty good reason. After you find out the reason, you’re ready to persuade your readers of a superior solution.

Tips for Writing Editorials

Write tight. Make a single point, in about 400 words. (Guest editorials, written by an invited expert, can tackle a more complex subject, and may be 800 words or even longer. The editorial page editor will work with a submission, helping the writer make his or her case with precise, snappy, expressive phrasing.)

  • Write short, journalism-style paragraphs — two or three sentences, not the page-long monsters you construct for academic papers.
  • Start with your main point.
  • Avoid “There are many ways that X has been important in recent weeks. One such way is Y.” 
    Instead, try “X forced itself upon us for the third time this month, when Y happened.”
  • Finish strong. Don’t just repeat your thesis — bring the reader somewhere.

Pick a topic that emerges from the news. (That is, your paper is already running a news article on this topic, and you are adding your opinion to the coverage.)

Avoid vague references to “some people say” or “research shows.” Name names. Interview sources yourself.

  • If you’re writing about a national issue, you probably won’t get a quote from the President of the United States.
  • You might, however, get a quote from a professor who specializes on a topic that’s in the news, or the president of a student club that’s relevant to your story.

Presume that your opponent has good reasons for disagreeing with you. Talk to people on the other side, and include some of their eloquent, well-argued points. Carefully and respectfully explain why your position is nevertheless more accurate (or ethical, or practical, or inspirational, or whatever).

  • Avoid trying to make your opinion seem stronger by distorting the other side, either through exaggeration (“Animal rights groups would rather millions of people from cancer than have one animal die during a scientific experiment”) or by using unflattering labels (“nicotine addicts who oppose my right to breathe fresh air…” “reactionary tea-baggers whose pathetic world-view is threatened by Obama’s heroic economic vision…” ).
  • Making “the other side” look evil or stupid may fool people who don’t know what you are talking about, but people who do know something about the subject can (and will) write a letter to the editor correcting your misrepresentations.

Don’t think of your goal as picking a fight with people who make you angry. Instead, try swaying the opinion of a reasonable person who sees the merits of both sides.

Write for something specific (not just against something)

Avoid simply listing complaints, or attacking a silent opponent with a series of aggressive questions that you have no intention of researching. 

Why is the salad bar so expensive this year? For the past several years, the cost of a large salad has gone up 10 cents each fall. This year, it jumped almost a dollar.  Is a salad really worth $3? For just a little more, I could get a hot meal. Why are our food prices so unfair?

Whine, whine, whine! Anybody can churn out a list of complaints against topic X.  It’s another thing entirely to come up with a solution, and then make a public statement in its favor.

So, instead of just whining about the high price of a salad, I might instead contact the dining services, and actually ask why the price went up. I might hear the manager tell me that customers had frequently requested more chicken salad and other expensive meat dishes.  My editorial becomes an opportunity to inform, as I explain the reason for the price increase, and make a sensible suggestion — $2.00 greens-only option.

Examples
(Two from my blog, one from an online newspaper. Feel free to comment if you wish.)

Additional Readings

A great series from Poynter Online (a craft-centered journalism education website)

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