Writing Opinion Pieces as a Journalist

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A hand holds up a megaphone against a blurred background that appears to show people holding up signs during a protest or demonstration.


In the spring of 2022, when the global mpox outbreak was in full swing, infectious disease reporter Kai Kupferschmidt did something out of character. Frustrated with vague public health messaging around the world, he wrote an opinion essay in The New York Times highlighting the harms of skirting around the fact that the virus was spreading primarily among gay men.

In a profession that treats objectivity as sacrosanct, reporters rarely, if ever, voice their opinions in news stories or features. But when journalists craft op-eds, their intentional choice to cross that line stands out. By centering their identity or relevant expertise, science journalists can use opinion pieces to present viewpoints that are informed and nuanced. For his mpox essay, Kupferschmidt drew from more than a decade of expertise as an infectious disease reporter as well as his lived experience as a gay man to explain how authorities can craft both direct and destigmatizing public health messages.

For science journalists, especially those with deep expertise in their beats, opinion pages offer a powerful platform to exercise their writerly authority and shape public conversation around an issue. When topics are particularly tangled or touchy, journalists can step in with their own two cents, acting as a guide through a confusing landscape.

Putting opinions out there for all to see takes a certain amount of courage—or at least a penchant for mischief. It also carries the risk of perceived bias, which could affect future work. But by presenting a rigorously reported argument and maintaining transparency, journalists can curtail those concerns and speak out on the topics they care most about.


Nailing Down an Argument

In opinion writing, the writer’s own views take center stage. This differs from science-news reporting, which primarily serves to describe scientific findings or an event, says Alexandra Sifferlin, the health and science editor for The New York Times opinion desk. “An opinion essay can have all of those elements, but at the root of it, the author is trying to make an argument about something specific.”

Defining this argument clearly is the first step in crafting a compelling opinion piece. “If I’m going to work with a journalist, we spend a lot of time landing on the argument,” says Sifferlin, who edits guest op-eds. Think about what you hope to achieve by writing an op-ed and what communities you hope to influence. These questions will inform the type of argument you assemble.

Report the heck out of your argument, just as you would for any journalistic assignment, and make sure your story stands on solid ground.

Some arguments call on policymakers or other powerful professionals to take a specific action or make a change. In his mpox piece, for example, Kupferschmidt urged policymakers and health authorities to communicate clearly—without promoting discrimination—about which communities are most at risk for contracting the virus.

Other opinion pieces introduce new ideas or highlight overlooked perspectives. Opinion writing offers a chance “to start a conversation,” Sifferlin says. In a 2021 story for The Atlantic, for example, France-based environmental writer Emma Marris challenged the methods by which many nature documentarians capture hyper-real footage of animals and their habitats. By editing out evidence of human activity and adding post hoc sound effects, Marris writes, these films create the misleading impression that untouched wildernesses are more pervasive than they actually are. To address this issue, she suggests an alternative approach that pans back from breathtaking montages of animals to “show the road or the houses or the farms that surround them”—a still wondrous yet truer depiction of nature.

Journalists can also use opinion essays to call out their colleagues: countering reporting rife with “bothsidesism” or adding necessary nuance to existing coverage of an issue. Lisa Jarvis, a pharma and biotech opinion columnist at Bloomberg, used a 2022 essay to critique the media coverage of a study investigating the effects of colonoscopies on colorectal cancer risk. Bleak headlines, Jarvis argues, suggested that the procedure failed to prevent cancer deaths. “I felt like not all the coverage had enough nuance to it,” she says, “And I was worried that would lead people to the conclusion that they shouldn’t get a colonoscopy.” Jarvis used her op-ed to detail the difference between evaluating screening tools at a population versus individual patient level. “Rather than be deterred,” she writes, “people should see this study as a good reason to talk with their doctor about their testing options.”


Structuring an Op-Ed

Once you have your argument in place, you need to back it up with evidence. An opinion without supporting evidence is bias or, worse, prejudice, says Kamala Thiagarajan, a freelance journalist from India who has written opinion essays about COVID-19 and vaccine inequity. Report the heck out of your argument, just as you would for any journalistic assignment, and make sure your story stands on solid ground.

With a critical mass of evidence in hand, you can then think about how to present it in the most compelling, convincing way. “You’re allowed to help someone structure how they think about something,” says Jarvis, rather than simply presenting facts and letting a reader draw their own conclusion.

One challenge with writing opinions is that it defies the traditional view of a journalist as a neutral, impartial observer. As such, writing op-eds may raise questions among your readers, editors, or future sources about possible conflicts of interest or bias.

In some cases, an effective story structure unveils the central argument up front, following it with a series of supporting points that build back up to an ultimate restatement of the writer’s view. This approach can work especially well for writers coming from a place of authority and expertise—such as a seasoned beat reporter or an expert writing about their field. In a 2023 Washington Post op-ed, for example, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s argument blares right from the headline: “How to Fix the CDC: First, Make It Smaller.” Then, he spends the body of the piece building a case for narrowing the responsibilities that fall to the overloaded agency.

You could also reach your argument through a narrative journey. This approach takes the reader through the experiences that shaped your opinion to show, rather than tell, why your view makes sense. Arguments that arise from deep reporting on a topic or from lived experience may fit this format well. For example, as Marris was researching her book on human interactions with wild animals, she began to question the ethics of breeding animals to be displayed in zoos. In a 2021 essay for The New York Times, she guides readers through the reporting that led her to that opinion. Rather than preaching at readers, pieces like this gently prod them to understand the writer’s perspective.

Other opinion pieces string together a series of emotional appeals to emphasize evidence and hammer home an argument. In doing so, writers might capitalize on their personal experience of an issue, recounting every poignant detail. For instance, Thiagarajan opens her 2021 essay for The New Arab about India’s failed COVID-19 response with a personal reflection: “I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when many Indians like me … completely and utterly lost faith in the government’s ability to control this raging second wave of pandemic,” she writes. Throughout the piece, Thiagarajan also uses emotional language to amplify the impact of statistics—a 50,000-metric-ton oxygen shortage rings painfully true, for example, when she writes about caregivers worrying “whether or not they could even afford to have their loved ones take their next breath.”


Handling Perceptions of Bias

One challenge with writing opinions is that it defies the traditional view of a journalist as a neutral, impartial observer. As such, writing op-eds may raise questions among your readers, editors, or future sources about possible conflicts of interest or bias.

However, these conflicts are often more perceived than they are real, says Megha Satyanarayana, chief opinion editor at Scientific American. In most cases, “what journalists, especially science reporters, are doing with an opinion piece is using their expertise to really analyze the topic they’re covering,” she says. For example, an experienced climate reporter might write an op-ed about how well international climate policies are working, based on attending meetings and talking to experts. Presenting a well-researched opinion doesn’t diminish a reporter’s ability to tell impartial stories, Satyanarayana says.

Even with the risk of perceived bias or pigeonholing, writing opinion pieces tends to pay off for both a writer and their readers.

Journalists can deflect concerns that they might be biased by prioritizing transparency with readers (and editors) about their level of expertise, how they developed it, and how it informs their work. Climate journalist Emily Atkin, for example, centers her credo of impassioned accountability reporting in the “About” page of her climate newsletter HEATED. Atkin assures her audience that her sometimes-scathing stories come from a place of expertise, having covered the beat since 2013. This upfront approach sows trust among readers and gets them to buy into this form of opinion journalism.

At the same time, it helps to think through the potential consequences of presenting your views publicly. For one, writing opinions might affect how sources view your work and could turn some away from speaking with you altogether, especially if they hold differing views. Similarly, not all editors see opinion writing in the same light, and some might only consider you for opinion pieces down the road. Freelancers in particular might want to ask around to get a feel for how editors at their regular or prospective outlets view journalists who dabble in op-eds. “It can really change the way your career goes and what kind of work you can do in the future,” Marris says. “So you have to be careful before you walk through that door into opinion writing.”

Even with the risk of perceived bias or pigeonholing, writing opinion pieces tends to pay off for both a writer and their readers. If it’s an opinion you hold strongly, based on a wealth of expertise and evidence, it’s probably worth writing about. Journalists “all have opinions about who is the better person to vote for, what is the better policy,” Marris says. “Instead of pretending that they don’t have those opinions, I actually think it serves the reader better sometimes to just tell them what those opinions are.”



Pratik Pawar Courtesy of Pratik Pawar

Pratik Pawar is a freelance science journalist who writes about global health, medicine, ecology, and science policy. A TON early-career fellow supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, he lives in Bangalore, India. Pratik’s work has appeared in Discover, Science, The Atlantic, and Undark, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @pratikmpawar.

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