- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
By Ashley Smart / 3 minute read
Has an opinion essay ever changed your mind? I often ask that question in the opinion-writing classes I teach. Hardly ever do the students say yes. Even the best-written essays, it seems, rarely provoke a reader to leap from one side of an argument to the other.
That makes sense. The issues that opinion writers grapple with — especially those that deal with science — are typically too complex to resolve in a 1,000-word column. Questions like What should humanity do to adapt to a rapidly changing climate? and How can an increasingly interconnected society prevent the spread of contagious disease? are vexing even to experts who have spent careers thinking about them. It would be unrealistic to expect that a few hundred words of prose could settle those questions.
So why publish opinion essays at all?
It’s a fair question. Before I answer it, I want to tell you about what might be one of the most successful opinion essays in recent memory. “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists,” was written for The New York Times in June 2020 by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery. In a deft bit of storytelling and framing, he recounts a run-in he had with a Boston resident while reporting in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Roxbury:
“Who are you with?” inquired the first person I had approached, a black man in his 50s. “The Globe?” he exclaimed after hearing my response. “The Globe doesn’t have black reporters. What are you doing over here? You lost? Y’all don’t write about this part of town.”
Lowery uses that encounter as a jumping-off point to interrogate the broader biases of the news media and to explore a question that had long simmered beneath the surface of the media world: What if neutral objectivity, one of the sacred tenets of journalism, is misguided? He writes:
Instead of promising our readers that we will never, on any platform, betray a single personal bias — submitting ourselves to a life sentence of public thoughtlessness — a better pledge would be an assurance that we will devote ourselves to accuracy, that we will diligently seek out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagree, and that we will be just as sure to ask hard questions of those with whom we’re inclined to agree.
Lowery’s prose was pitch perfect, his logic sound. Still, I doubt his words dissuaded many, if any, hardened disciples of neutral objectivity. What he did do was to show his readers a familiar problem in a new light. And he started a broader conversation about objectivity and fairness in reporting. That conversation has reached new forums — social media, media criticism blogs, journalism schools — and engaged a wide range of voices and perspectives. That conversation is very much still alive today.
This, in my view, is why we publish opinion essays: not necessarily to change a reader’s mind — though there is some evidence that it can do that — but to ignite a conversation, perhaps one the public didn’t even realize it needed to have. And it is through these broader conversations that hearts and minds can eventually change.
Opinion essays are especially valuable in matters of science. To the average person, who may not have studied the subject since high school or college, science might seem mystifying and disconnected from their everyday lives.
Opinion, perhaps more than any other journalistic form, bridges that gap. A science opinion writer is like a tour guide, interpreter, and analyst. Opinion writers not only inform the reader but help the reader make sense of that information, and they encourage the reader to react to the information in some way. They spur readers to really engage with a subject — to form their own judgments about the merits of an argument, or to think up their own rebuttals and counterexamples. Done well, science opinion writing implores the reader not just to consume news about science but to be an active participant in the public discourse. At a moment when so many in the science community are seeking to improve public engagement, the opinion page may be one of the most potent ways to do just that.
So how can we best wield this power of opinion writing in science journalism? How do we persuade and provoke readers without compromising scientific integrity and evidence? How do we make inroads among readers who are resistant to facts that don’t align with their worldview? And how can we engage new voices and perspectives in the important conversations there are to be had about science?
I want to get to all of those questions. But first we must address an even more fundamental question: In a media landscape that’s swimming with knee-jerk reactions and hot takes, which opinions are fit to publish?