News is defined as something new, surprising, unexpected, counterintuitive, first, biggest or that raises new issues or problems. But what makes something newsworthy?
Detailed below are four factors that a reporter may consider as he/she evaluates whether or not to write about a particular piece of research, program or project. In our ongoing effort to bring newsworthy work to the attention of media for coverage through news release development and direct pitching, please use this information as your guide in determining the news value of your work.
I. Pioneering Research
The word news means exactly that - things which are new or provide a new insight of interest to a targeted audience. A program, project or research that highlights new insights about communication could be of significant interest to the media.
II. Broad Audience Appeal
When covering the news, a reporter is concerned with the number of people who will be affected by his/her story. Consider whether your work is on a subject in which many people are familiar and/or care about. No matter how new and exciting a finding, if the intended audience is narrow, it is unlikely to generate coverage. Work that has broad audience appeal will likely attract media interest.
III. Provocative Topics
Provocative topics will often generate the greatest media interest. For example, in recent years there has been increasing interest in research about bullying, health, and social media.
IV. Easily Understandable
Ultimately, it is the reporter’s responsibility to communicate a story audiences will understand. Some research may be too complex for the general public, resulting in little to no media attention. But work that brings to light understandable connections of broad audience appeal is likely to generate media coverage.
Why write an opinion piece?
The opinion pages are among the best-read sections of any publication—often on par with the front page itself. In addition to the general public, some of the most attentive readers of these pages are decision makers in government, corporations, and nonprofit institutions. The opinion pages are one of the best ways to place an issue in the public eye, or to bring another perspective to the news.
Print vs. electronic
The writing guidelines are the same in any medium. Consider writing for all mediums including traditional print such as newspapers and magazines as well as electronic which includes blogs, extended web editions of newspapers, and purely web-based news/opinion operations such as the Huffington Post, Political.com and Slate.com.
What makes a good opinion piece?
Editors of news publications seek submissions that, in addition to displaying expertise, are also well written, timely and provocative—all the hallmarks of any good nonfiction writing. A good op-ed is concise, hits hard and evokes vivid images, analogies and arguments. It is informed and backed by facts—not just emotion or opinion. Most editors see the opinion page as a section for advocacy, denunciations, controversy and astonishment. In general, publications want opinion pages to stimulate community discussion and drive public debate.
Before sitting down to write, consider whether you are you the right person to write/sign the op-ed. Passion and strong opinion are prerequisites; but they are not enough. Your credibility is far higher if you have true expertise, either through your training and work, or through a telling and powerful personal experience. You must be able to back up all points made.
If the issue or a related subject has been in the news lately, or if you are responding to a particular article, then the background of your piece will be well laid out, and it will increase your chances of getting in. However, in some cases, something may be going on below the public radar that should be in the news pages, but has not yet reached them. So, sometimes an op-ed helps to break the news itself. Occasionally if your op-ed does not break new ground, you may be able to find something current to tie it to: a holiday, anniversary, election, upcoming conference, report, a vote in Congress, or pending action by local or state government.
Which publication to target for your op-ed?
Consider your readers/audience before you do anything. Are you submitting to a national, general-interest publication? If not, narrow your scope to something that pertains to the readership of that publication. Editors of local and regional papers also look for community interest or a strong local angle, and unless there is considerable public debate already, will be less receptive to op-eds about national issues or broad ideas. In this case, you can try telling a local story, usually about a real person, family or group and how your issue affects them.
Writing the piece
An op-ed is generally 500-750 words and it must unfold quickly. Focus on one issue or idea, briefly express your opinion in your opening paragraph, and be clear and confirmed in your viewpoint. The following paragraphs should back your viewpoint with factual, researched, or first-hand information. A good op-ed is not just an opinion; it consists of fact put into well-informed context.
Be timely and controversial--but not outrageous. Personal, conversational, and humorous (when appropriate) writing is important to readability, and to capturing the reader’s attention. Make sure that you educate without preaching. Near the end, clearly restate your position and issue a call to action. If you are discussing a problem, then offer a solution or a better approach; this takes the reader beyond mere criticism.
Try to include a catchy title for your op-ed that emphasizes your central message. This will help the editor grasp the idea quickly, and help sell the piece. Be prepared, however, for the publication to write its own headline as an author’s headline is rarely used no matter how good it is.
Below are some specifics keep in mind as you write:
- Come down hard on one side of the argument, and never equivocate.
- Identify the counterargument, and refute it with facts.
- Emphasize active verbs; go easy on adjectives and adverbs.
- Avoid clichés.
- Avoid technical jargon and acronyms.
- Try to grab the reader's attention in the first line. End with a strong or thought- provoking line.
- Use specific references and easy-to-understand data rather than abstraction.
- Anecdotes can sometimes help enhance understanding of an issue.
- Ideally, your topic will be timely, but at the same time have a long shelf life (i.e., the problem won’t be solved in a month).
How to Submit
Op-eds should almost always be submitted by email (check the op-ed submission guidelines for each publication you target to ensure that you follow their rules). Most likely your submission will include a brief bio, phone number, email address, and mailing address. You may also consider including a succinct cover letter to establish why you are qualified to write the piece that briefly explains why the issue is important and why readers would care.
In general, you should submit to only one publication at a time. Sometimes editors can take up to 10 days to accept or reject. If your piece is very timely, it may be acceptable to submit to several outlets at once, but you must check submission guidelines and inform each editor of the multiple submissions (The New York Times will only consider pieces sent to them exclusively). Avoid submitting the same op-ed to two papers in the same geographical or readership market. Quite often, you will not be notified if your op-ed is rejected (the official New York Times policy is that you should consider yourself rejected if you don’t hear within three business days).
If your op-ed does not get accepted, but still concerns a topic of current concern and has been recently covered, you might consider shortening it and resubmitting as a letter to the editor. You will get less space—but you will still have a chance of getting published.
Writing a letter to the editor can be a useful way to share your knowledge with your college/university leadership, the local community, policymakers and other targeted audiences. Community leaders regularly read the opinion pages of newspapers for clues about issues of concern in their community. In addition, letters to the editor are a way of reaching a much wider audience with your messages and are a fairly simple and effective way for you to be a voice for the discipline, your department and your college/university.
Below are suggestions for writing letters to the editor and getting them printed.
Letter to the Editor Strategies
Check the newspaper print guidelines for the outlets you are targeting—Most newspapers have a website. Check the paper’s website or the editorial page of the print version for information about submitting a letter to the editor. Most newspapers have an online submission form which you can use.
Keep your letter brief and to the point – Letters should be concise—typically newspapers have a word limit of about 250 words (about 3 paragraphs). Editors are less likely to print long letters.
Make your letter timely – Tie the subject of your letter to a recent article, editorial or column already published in the newspaper you are targeting. Use that article as a hook for communicating your message. Small-circulation newspapers usually print many of the letters they receive. It is more challenging to get a letter printed in a major metropolitan newspaper, so don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t get printed.
Localize your letter – Explain how the topic/subject you are addressing affects the readership/community who is the target audience of the newspaper. Lend credibility to your letter by noting your professional experiences in the community that prompted you to write on the topic.
Use “levels of thought” as a method for organizing your letter – You can use levels of thought to structure your letter to the editor. Begin your letter with a big idea or value (level one) that provides a context for understanding the more specific details (levels two and three) of your communication.
Be mindful of the tone of your letter – The tone of your letter can either support or overpower the substance of the message you are trying to communicate. Therefore , choosing and controlling tone is an important element of your communication.
Preparing for an Interview
Gather as much information as possible from the reporter. Understand who is calling and why:
- Identify the reporter and his/her affiliation. If possible, determine the reporter’s audience – size, geographic location, ages, occupations and interests.
- Establish the focus of the story.
- Find out the reporter’s deadline.
- Find out who else will be interviewed for the story.
- Ask how the reporter learned about your university/organization or was referred to you.
- For television or radio interviews, find out if the interview will be live, taped or ‘live to tape’ (meaning it’s a live interview that is aired at a later date.) For radio, ask if there will be listener call-in. This information will help you not get caught unaware by a caller you weren’t expecting during the interview.
Collect and organize your thoughts: You do not have to talk to the reporter immediately. The reporter has had time to prepare, so you should grant yourself the same opportunity. It is important, however, to respect a reporter’s deadline. If you do not get back to the reporter in time, especially if responding to a potential negative story, you risk seeing or hearing a report that says “X could not be reached for comment.”
Use your preparation time to do the following:
- Prepare for likely questions.
- Outline two or three key points you want to make.
- Think about your visual appearance (in the event of a television interview). (Clothes that are blue or red appear well on television -- avoid white – it can be too bright for television cameras.)
- If you are in a situation that does not allow you to fully prepare, then in a friendly manner ask the reporter for the following:
- The nature of the story he/she is working on.
- Specific questions she would like addressed.
- The deadline, in case you would like to provide supporting information after the interview.
- In a situation in which a hostile reporter is asking loaded questions, it is important to KEEP YOUR COOL and REMAIN CALM. Do not try to debate a reporter. Provide him/her with accurate, concise information. Offer to send the reporter information or call him/her back when you have some supporting documentation in hand.
During the Interview
- Emphasize positive stories and provide solid information. Media like to tell a story through real-life case histories and examples. If you can illustrate your news through a personal story or case study, be prepared with an example. Statistical information and percentages that support your case(s) are also very helpful.
- Be Consistent. All responses to media inquiries should be consistent. To ensure consistency, share background information with other individuals who might be speaking with the media on your story/news.
- Technique – The key here is to be HONEST, SINCERE and CONFIDENT. If you do not know the answer to a reporter’s questions, then say so. If you can find out, then do so.
- Avoid Speculation – Do not be speculative or answer hypothetical questions. If a reporter leads with, “Assume that…” or “What if…”, respond with something such as, “I am unable to speculate on that, however…” and state your positive message.
- Remain Positive – Convey positive messages and responses. Positive remarks are the best. For example, if a negative question is posed, don’t say, “No, our program is not about X.” Instead say, what your program is about.
- “No Comment” – Do not say “No Comment.” It sounds as if you have something to hide. If you do not have an answer, say so and let the reporter know that you, or the appropriate spokesperson, will get back to them with information. If you do not want to discuss something, rephrase the general message or refer to your key messages on the topic – you don’t have to answer specifics. Be firm, but not abrasive.
- Keep It Simple – Technical terms may be foreign to a reporter. If a reporter fully understands you, he is more likely to incorporate your response in the story.
- Be Concise – State your answer and stop. Do not fill in silent pauses. Often a reporter will ask a question, wait for your response, and then be silent, waiting for you to elaborate. If a reporter seems to utilize this technique, provide your answer, stop, and ask the reporter if there are any other questions. A pause also provides you with the opportunity to add your two or three key points or collect your thoughts.
- Press Contacts – Keep a record of press contacts. This will help you remember which reporters are fair and balanced and should be called upon when you have something to say.
- Television Interviews – Often television coverage will only air your response, so it is best to restate the question at the beginning of your answer. (i.e. Q: “What is the goal of your project?” A: “The goal of the our project is ...”)
Media terms have different meanings to organizations and members of the media. It is therefore important from the outset to lay down the ground rules surrounding a media interview. Below are some key terms you must know.
- Off-the-Record – means no part of the interviewee’s statement can be printed or broadcasted. Understand that NOTHING is off-the-record when speaking to a reporter. Ifyou do not wish to have a statement of fact appear in print or broadcast do not provide the information or quote to the reporter. Also, please note that any information provided via e- mail can be considered “on the record.”Often people provide reporters information off-the-record because they know and trust them. However, you must be prepared to deal with the circumstances of your off-the- record remarks being made public. There is no law that states a reporter cannot use off- the-record remarks. It is an ethical decision every reporter must make, and in some cases they will break this unwritten rule to meet their perceived obligation of being a journalist.
- On-Background – means that the interviewee’s name is not identified and she is instead referred to as a “spokesperson for your organization.” However, some organizations and reporters interpret on-background to mean not using your name or the company name. Therefore, it is important to clarify ahead of time with the reporter his definition of on- background.
ARRIVE EARLY. Scope out the facility and the interview room. Go to the bathroom and freshen up. Meet the interviewer. Drink a bit of water so you won’t have a dry mouth.
GATHER YOUR THOUGHTS. In advance of your interview, you will receive interview questions. Prepare by reviewing the questions and thinking about the key messages/comments (no more than three per question) you will wish to convey.
DO NOT REHEARSE. While you should have an idea of what you would like to address in advance of each question, you SHOULD NOT try to script out or rehearse dialogue ahead of time. Scripted dialogue can often come across as “stale and stilted” on camera rather than “fresh and conversational.”
RELAX. Taping of the presentation will be a relaxed, “low pressure” activity. Ideally, each response will be free-flowing and uninterrupted. Because the final video will be edited, it will not be a problem to start/stop during taping in order to change direction as needed.
WARDROBE. Some colors and patterns of clothing do not work well on video. Please AVOID WEARING:
- All white
- All black
- Very bright or “orangey” reds
- Shiny dangling jewelry
- Tight patterns, such as thin stripes, polka dots, or herringbone
It is OK to wear:
- Solid colors (with emphasis on blues & brown. Creams, eggshells and light gray are fine)
- White and black should only be worn as accent colors (e.g. white shirt under a suit coat)
PRESENCE & POSTURE. How you sit in your chair, move your eyes and gesture with your hands matters. Please keep in mind the following:
- Check your hair and adjust your clothing before the taping;
- Sit up straight and, if possible, sit toward the front of your chair; lean in a bit toward the camera;
- If wearing a suit jacket, pull the back down and sit on it (this will keep the jacket from creeping up);
- Voice tone should reflect the content of your message (e.g. if the message is serious, the tone should be serious; if the message is about a new discovery, the tone should be excitement and enthusiasm);
- Hand gestures and animation are good and should also reflect the meaning and content of your message;
- Use appropriate eye contact. Talk to the camera as if it was a person (do not look at the ground or up at the sky); and
- Relax, have fun and remember to SMILE.