UC Berkeley News


Everyone's got an opinion .
But not everyone - even in today's freewheeling media environment - can get people to listen. That's where academics with Berkeley-bred expertise enjoy an advantage

| 25 April 2007

You're an assistant professor in a specialized discipline, accustomed to sharing your research findings with equally specialized peers . and the occasional captive classroom audience. When someone asks what it is you do, you mumble something about "cutting-edge approaches to difficult problems" before your voice trails off.

Your work, in short, doesn't seem to be Topic A on anyone's lips but your own.

And then, one morning, you discover that your area of expertise is suddenly enjoying its 15 minutes of prominence. An event halfway around the world (or even close to home) has captured the attention of the media, which is now focusing its multiple antennae - print, TV, the blogosphere - on a story that is right up your academic alley.

The Berkeleyan, which reaches some 14,000 campus faculty and staff each week during the school year, has a longstanding policy of welcoming opinion pieces on topics of current interest from its print readership. Contact editor Jonathan King (jfking@berkeley.edu, 643-4654) with your proposals.

Except that they've got it all wrong: Their assumptions are mistaken, their grasp of the evidence they've managed to Google since the story broke four hours ago is pathetic, and their nonstop speculation about What It All Means is wrongheaded, poorly informed, and counterproductive.

Do you shrug and sigh, satisfied once again that the media can do nothing but oversimplify, sensationalize, exaggerate, and distort anything of importance? Or do you rush to the computer to pound out your own view of everything that's being so badly misunderstood, in hopes that some wise editorial gatekeeper will rush your unique insights, your grasp of the nuances, into print - advancing the field of journalism, promoting good citizenship, and advocating for a principled, informed outcome?

Chances are, professor, that while your impulse to weigh in on the story is wholly appropriate, neither your mindset nor your writer's bag of tricks is up to the challenge.

"Academics possess knowledge and expertise that newspaper opinion editors would love to offer their readers," says Yasmin Anwar, a media-relations specialist in the Office of Public Affairs who spent three years as a newspaper-editorial writer before coming to work at Berkeley. And indeed, a few prominent Berkeley faculty are already familiar names on the nation's leading opinion pages: You see them frequently in the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal, opining about immigration or global warming or the New Hampshire primary. Their voices regularly join those called upon to comment on the news of the day, as they lend the academy's presumed gravitas to discussions more typically monopolized by a hot-button issue's activists and opponents, and the polished voices of the professional opinionista class.

Tight editing pays off

Many more scholars could join the ranks of published pundits if they were willing to try new ways of communicating their expertise, says Anwar: "The Bay Area has a huge population of writers and scholars, so opinion editors have a lot to choose from here. If you're going to offer them a piece, you have to give them something that meets two tests: It can't need a lot of editing, and it has to stand out from the crowd."

Why no editing? Because there more than likely won't be anyone available to edit it. "Most newspaper editorial staffs are small," explains Anwar, "and they don't have a lot of time to work with writers. That's why the cleanest, most tightly edited submissions rise to the top."

"Standing out from the crowd," meanwhile, is not about dazzling readers with your C.V., your Guggenheim, or your command of arcane terminology: Save that for your journal submissions, Anwar advises. In writing for a general readership you want to avoid jargon, which in addition to confusing or alienating readers serves only to confirm the prejudice against academics already common in most newsrooms. (The San Francisco Chronicle's Louis Freedberg, an editorial writer who holds a Ph.D. from Berkeley, offers what he says is the typical newsroom view of the professoriat: "You guys are up in the clouds, you can't really write, you're too wordy and too complicated . and, oh, you hate the media.")

Lede go boom?

Instead, strive for readability above all, while bearing in mind the genre's structural requirements: a compelling first paragraph (the "lede," in print parlance) that eschews the kind of "throat-clearing" that can consume half your allotted word count before you utter a topic sentence. (Says Freedberg: "That first sentence has to go BOOM!") With a reference to the theme of your mini-essay (the current issue, problem, or controversy) at the very top, you must next quickly summarize the situation and then segue promptly into the case you intend to lay out.

"You have room to make perhaps three main points" in a 750- or 900-word newspaper opinion piece, says Anwar. So it's important to maintain focus while writing: Don't go off on tangents, however interesting they may seem from the vantage point of your own expertise. Stop periodically and read aloud what you've written so far: Are you wandering discursively, or sticking to your main point(s)? Don't worry overmuch about your ivory-tower objectivity: That's for the rest of the paper, not the opinion pages. And finally, don't save all the best material for last: "A lot of people, editors included, don't read anything all the way to the end," advises Anwar, "so you have to be sure to grab them at the top."

It's not difficult writing; it's just different from the kind of writing most academics are accustomed to. Steve Tolleffson, a writing instructor who heads the campus Office of Educational Development, helped Anwar conduct Media Relations' first "op-ed writing workshop" for faculty and staff interested in developing their chops. At that March 14 workshop he assured the two dozen participants (among them several faculty members, an academic department head, an assistant chancellor, and a vice chancellor) that "If you ever write to your parents and talk about your work, you can write an op-ed." Further allaying whatever insecurities may have existed in the room, he counseled: "Find the op-eds that you like and steal from them in terms of style, approach, and tone."

The odds of getting your op-ed published, therefore, are probably much better than you think. You' have the expertise that opinion editors crave; you have the thick skin, conditioned by years in the academic trenches, to survive the rejection of your first several attempts; and you have access to coaching at a level that few pundits enjoy.

Coaching? Anwar and her colleague Kathleen Maclay continue to offer periodic workshops in op-ed writing, providing would-be opinionmongers with the tools to submit "winning" pieces that don't require heavy editing or rewriting. Since the March 14 workshop they've helped one participant (the Law School's Chris Hoofnagle, a consumer-privacy expert) publish an op-ed on identity theft in the San Francisco Chronicle, and now have draft submissions on their desks from several other faculty members with opinions to share.

Sneak peeks

That's because Anwar and Maclay welcome advance peeks at pieces by those who have drafted an op-ed they think may be ready for submission, offering the kind of feedback that can help those pieces find a home.

"We don't have time to look at long, rambling screeds," Anwar says, "but if you feel pretty good about something you've written, by all means send it to us, and we'll try to help you revise it so it can cover that last mile to the editor's desk on its own merits. Opinion editors, after all, don't particularly want to get something sent from the campus public-affairs office: They'd much rather hear from you directly."

As would those citizens and opinionmakers who still, even in this digital age, turn to the newspaper opinion section to try on smart folks' points of view for size.

"The thing that's amazing about the media in this country," reflects the Chronicle's Freedberg, "is that it has a tremendous amount of power and influence. You can make a huge impact on issues even working in local media: When I write an editorial, it has an impact not just in the Bay Area but around California. People, for some reason, think that what we have to say is important. And with all the opinions now available in the new and old media alike, there's something about a piece that appears to have been screened and edited that gives it more clout."

The next Media Relations op-ed workshop, at which local opinion editors will describe the kind of pieces they look for, will be held during the summer. For information - and to subscribe to That's Your Opinion!, an occasional newsletter for campus op-ed writers - contact Anwar (yanwar@berkeley.edu, 643-7944) or Maclay (kmaclay@berkeley.edu, 643-5651).

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