Letters to the Editor & Opinion Pieces
It’s been called the column that gets people talking. Open any newspaper or magazine and you’re bound to find several "letters to the editor." These letters express views on previously published articles, editorials, letters, or other features in a newspaper, magazine, or other publication. They provide people and organizations an opportunity to talk with each other and reach a broad section of the public with their messages.
Letters to the editor can be used to correct misinformation, state a difference of opinion, promote an issue, or support a previously expressed view. Some surveys show that letters to the editor are the most widely read features of any newspaper.
Tips for Preparing a Letter to the Editor
Tip 1: Type the letter on letterhead (Chapter or hospital), and include your name, title, and contact information. Sign your letter, because editors won’t publish anonymous letters. Your title and affiliation will give you credibility and increase the likelihood your letter will be published. Include both day and evening telephone numbers. Being accessible increases the chance your letter will be published.
Tip 2: Capture the editor with a compelling first sentence. Editors decide quickly whether or not they want to print a letter. They may never read the letter in its entirety.
Tip 3: Put yourself in the letter, and use personal anecdotes. Tell a personal story. For example, "As an emergency physician at [NAME OF HOSPITAL], and member of the American College of Emergency Physicians, I know firsthand that…
Tip 4: Avoid medical jargon, and use correct grammar and spelling.
Editors are more likely to print a letter if it is well written and doesn’t require extensive editing.
Tip 5: Keep the letter brief, yet punchy. Most newspapers have limited space for letters. Keeping your message concise will increase your chance of it getting published.
Tip 6: Use statistics, but put the figures in understandable terms. For example, "Nearly 100 million emergency department visits will be made this year, that's approximately one in three Americans."
Tip 7: Anticipate your letter will be cut. Make sure you lead with your most important points and include a strong message in each paragraph.
Tip 8: Use examples that relate to local readers. Editors are more likely to print letters with a local angle.
Don’t be discouraged if your first letter isn’t printed. It sometimes takes several attempts before a letter is published. See an example of a letter to the editor in the Appendix.
Turn to the editorial page of your daily newspaper, and you’ll be sure to find several editorials (brief opinion pieces), covering key issues of the day. The newspaper’s editorial board is comprised of editorial page staff and the senior editors who write editorials to express opinions about current issues. The position a newspaper takes on an issue is a collective decision made by the editorial board.
Individuals or groups can seek to persuade an editor or editorial board to do an editorial on their issue or concern. The first step is to send a pitch letter. Present a point of view the editors may not have considered. Find a different angle to a story that’s currently in the news. Explain how the issue affects the newspaper’s readers.
Your pitch letter should build credibility. Editors will be interested in knowing you’re a specialist in emergency medicine, that you have strong ties to the community, and that your Chapter represents most of the emergency physicians in your state. Remind them you confront medical and social problems in your emergency department and have a firsthand understanding of medical and health issues in the community. Give examples! Be descriptive and back up anecdotes with statistics.
Your next step is to call the editor(s). Follow up your letter with a telephone call. Offer to answer questions or provide additional information. (For tips on contacting the news media, see the Chapter on .Interviews..)
Finally, you may want to meet with the editorial board. An editorial board meeting is a scheduled meeting in which the editorial staff discusses what will be published on the editorial page. It also is an opportunity for editorial staff to meet with outside representatives to discuss timely issues that ultimately could be published as editorials.
The executive editor or editor usually is responsible for scheduling these meetings.
Editorial board meetings are excellent ways to educate the media, but before you call an editor to schedule a meeting, prepare. Start by contacting your hospital’s public relations department or ACEP's Public Relations Department to discuss your plans. Next, consider the following questions:
- Who will meet with the editorial staff? As the emergency physician, you should serve as the primary spokesperson. However, it’s a good idea to have your hospital’s public relations person present. You might also have a colleague present who supports your viewpoint and can offer additional personal examples.
- What are your key messages? Identify a few messages you want to communicate during the meeting and stick to your agenda. Every reporter has an agenda for his or her story and so should you. Your agenda should be to deliver your key messages in a simple, yet dynamic and convincing way.
- How is your opinion different from what’s been covered in the newspaper? As an emergency physician, you have a unique perspective on a number of social issues. Whether you’re advocating for motorcycle helmet laws or explaining ACEP’s policy statement about mandatory reporting of blood alcohol levels, you are a leader in the community with an influential viewpoint. Not many people have the opportunity to interact on a daily basis with persons of all ages and ethnic and social groups. In what other job can you help a battered woman, save a child’s life, and wrap a broken ankle, all in a day’s work? No matter what issue you discuss, remember you are a specialist in emergency medicine with a truly unique perspective.
- Do you understand the opposition? You have a particular angle to communicate, but do you know and understand how to refute opposing arguments? You should be knowledgeable about all sides of an issue and well-versed on your view. Be ready to provide counter arguments and support your statements with facts, statistics, and anecdotes. Nothing is more convincing than real-life examples. Use your knowledge and your daily experiences to make your point.
- Should you provide background material? Yes, if it’s appropriate or requested. Background materials can include statistics, fact sheets, journal articles, and other news articles. Remember, your most convincing argument is a strong message supported by real experiences and statistics.
- What should you do when the publication editorializes in support of the opposition? Understand when you begin the process that there’s a 50/50 chance that your point of view won’t prevail, and plan accordingly.
If you do a persuasive job of educating the editorial staff, your point of view probably will be discussed in the editorial, even if the newspaper ultimately sides with your opponent. In addition, you’ll have educated a number of influential editors about emergency medicine and established yourself as a source.
The New York Times invented the "op-ed" page (the newspaper page opposite the editorial page) in 1970. Since then, op-ed pieces have become a popular, and powerful, communication tool and are regular features of nearly every newspaper. Op-eds are opinion pieces, similar to editorials, but written by many kinds of people, including elected officials and community leaders like you.
Emergency physicians can use op-ed pieces to help influence public opinion and policymakers on issues important to emergency medicine. By explaining an issue’s importance to the community, you can help put the issue on the .political agenda.. And by recommending a course of action, you can help shape health care policy decisions.
Op-eds don’t need national placement to generate national support. For example, congressional staff monitors local press stories to determine grassroots support or opposition to proposals. Opinion pieces are important to lawmakers because they reflect the viewpoints of constituents.
Why would readers of a local newspaper be interested in your point of view? As an emergency physician, you:
- Are a patient advocate who can illustrate your views with compelling examples from personal experiences in the emergency department.
- Provide a highly valued community service that includes lifesaving care, in a setting where you do not choose, or refuse, patients.
- Are a neighbor and community member who shares the readers’ concerns about the quality of life.
- Are well-versed in the issues and can back up your opinions with facts.
The following tips are for writing and submitting op-ed articles:
- Follow any guidelines provided by the publication, but in general, submit a typed, double-spaced article of 500 words or less with a cover letter addressed to the editorial page editor. Being too lengthy can ensure rejection. Do not respond to letters to the editor.
- Take a position. Provide strong arguments about an issue in the news. Avoid the tendency to explain all sides of an issue, which would be considered analysis, rather than an op-ed and most likely will be rejected. Editors are looking for immediacy, name recognition, creative new ideas, or controversy.
- Develop fresh angles on old issues. Once an issue becomes a "front page story," editors already have been inundated by opinion pieces on the topic. If you wait too long to submit an op-ed, you will lose your window of opportunity because newspapers won’t continue to publish op-eds on the same subject.
- Hook the reader in the first paragraph. Begin with an interesting
anecdote or question, a provocative statement, or a colorful quote.
Back up assertions with facts and double check them. Make sure your quotes are accurate, in word and context. Don’t overstate or risk creating distrust in the reader’s mind.
- Write for the correct grade level. The writing level of an op-ed page may be slightly above that of news pages (generally fifth grade level), but not much higher. Follow the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual and accepted journalistic writing practices. Contact ACEP’s Public Relations Department for assistance.
Letters to the Editor
- Regularly read editorials published by the newspaper you wish to write for to develop a sense of what is published and the accepted writing style.
- Follow the publication’s recommendations for submitting the piece. Include a brief, one-page cover letter with your day and evening telephone numbers. In most cases, it is not necessary to call op-ed editors to verify receipt. Keep telephone calls to a minimum. Editors want pieces to stand up to scrutiny by themselves without the benefit of additional interpretation, because that’s how the op-ed will be scrutinized by readers.