October 16, 2023

Writing an Op-ed: Lessons in Public Sociology

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

I have a book coming out in a few weeks on hospitals and their communities. One of my co-authors and I are hoping to write an op-ed that will bring some of the knowledge from the book (particularly the policies recommendations we are making) to the wider public. Sociology should always be looking for ways to reach a wider audience, and do more public sociology.  

When aiming to write an op-ed, one of the things that authors will look for a “news peg.” These are very recent events in the news that a writer can use to make a wider point about some political or social issue. When the Fyre Festival debacle occurred, for example, I was able to co-author an op-ed about the financial risks and rewards for small bands to participate in music festivals. In my local paper, when a recent controversy arose about the renovation of my small town downtown strip, I was able to write about Jane Jacobs’ more pedestrian-focused approach to urban planning.

So, to try and find some news item to puzzle over in an op-ed, I used a handy tool of Google Alerts (here’s how to do that), and set one up for “hospital + neighborhood.” What came up in my alert was all crime, crime, accident, crime, accident. There’s some violent crime and then, the stories go, a trip to the hospital. The selections from my Google Alert this past weekend include: “Woman killed, 4 others injured in crash in St. Louis' Dutchtown neighborhood,” “2 shot in Denver's Gateway neighborhood,” “Heavy police presence at Raleigh neighborhood Sunday evening,” and “Police: 1 dead after assault in southwest Charlotte neighborhood.” There were many more such news stories, and I have had a difficult time finding a news peg.

I certainly would be interested to learn of any hospital initiatives that have a positive connection with their communities, but that type of story just doesn’t hit the news in the same way, does it? This is the way with local news, of course. “If it bleeds it leads,” is the common phrase about journalism. It is a hard culture to break, and its over-emphasis on particular kinds of crime (i.e., street crime, violent crime) is not without the unintended consequence of associating particular racialized groups with crime overall which reinforces racial biases. How can we write an op-ed when the news in a  news peg is so heavily skewed toward these kinds of stories?

The way I’ve been able to write op-eds is through a platform called The Conversation. They are a team of people with a journalism background who want to match scholarship with news outlets. Their mission is to complement the news agenda with explanatory journalism. (They have a great “how to write for The Conversation” explainer, which you can find here.)

On the platform they say there are different kinds of pieces they like to work on, including:  analysis of news events, articles explaining new research to an audience, or timely explainers of recent complex issues told by academic scholars. (See more of what they do here. To see an example of an explainer, see this piece on the Israel-Hamas War, here.) Once they host an op-ed, they try to place my op-eds in various news venues.

It helps to take a somewhat controversial position. For one of my co-authored op-eds explained that gentrification isn’t always bad (i.e., gentrification means rich people moving out, not displacement, and therefore, there are some places where more wealthy people moving in does not displace people). For another, I make the argument that we should be investing more public money into accessible cultural and arts festivals rather than in permanent opera houses and performing arts spaces.

Boy, did I receive some feisty emails in response to both of those pieces of writing! For the latter op-ed, one person wrote me: “10 years of research and you want to bulldoze the Getty in favor of Coachella? The Art Institute of Chicago in favor of Lollapalooza? Why does it have to be a zero-sum situation?”

Most of my responses to these emails were “Thanks for reading!,” but I did try to respond to everyone. While I received a good few dozen congratulatory emails when it was published in my local paper, I did get an email from someone I saw as the main voice stoking the trumped-up controversy I wanted to write about.

My work has been read all over the world, and in places like CNN and The Washington Post. I’ve also written for The Guardian and The New Statesman which are UK news sources. There have been at least 144,000 clicks on my four articles with The Conversation. (Clicks are not the same as reads, of course!) The article with the lowest click count (7,000) represents far more eyeballs than any of my more traditional academic papers… perhaps even more than all of my articles combined!

Perhaps you will be asked to write an op-ed for one of your sociology classes. It is a wonderful exercise! If you are, here is a handy guide on the American Sociological Association’s TRAILS (Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology) resource, written by Heather Laube (University of Michigan-Flint).


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« The Mouth of Privilege | Main | How I Became a Professor: My Parents’ Gifts for Pursuing the Impossible Dream »