How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

What a Great Op-Ed Looks Like

Grad students aren’t supposed to have the time to write op-eds for major newspapers — or the juice to get them published. Certainly not without a tenured co-author.

Tell it to Chris Herring, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California Berkeley, who wrote this quite good op-ed for the Washington Post, “Democrats hate Trump’s plan for homelessness. But it’s their plan, too.”

It’s immediately clear why the Post accepted Herring’s pitch and ran it on the front page of Sunday’s Opinion section:

  • He’s using a hook that’s fresh and juicy (President Trump’s recent visit to California and call to eliminate homelessness in that state, threatening federal intervention) to point out that homelessness and activities associated with it have been criminalized by cities all over the United States, especially on the West Coast.
  • He’s got a surprise to tell us: urban officials (usually Democrats) who are now decrying Trump’s intentions have enacted and expanded homelessness policies that have been just as punitive and draconian as Trump’s plans sound.
  • He has the evidence to back up his claims: not just studies showing increases in the number of laws criminalizing homelessness and related activities, but his own experience as a researcher spending 57 nights sleeping on the streets of San Francisco as well as following homeless people, police and sanitation crews to observe their interactions.
  • These Democratic policies aren’t just bad, they’re making homelessness worse — or, as Herring writes: “These policies aren’t just costly and ineffective. They also perpetuate homelessness.” (Read the piece to learn why.)
  • His op-ed is a one-stop shop explaining all this and why ending the status quo is an essential step “to push for the services, affordable housing and jobs that will actually help end the crisis.”

Those elements — hook; surprise (and hypocrisy); evidence; status quo must be changed; op-ed as one-stop shop — are the full monty. Herring will get a lot of follow-up interviews off this piece.

Publishing research and creating thought pieces are two critical options for researchers who want to spotlight problems. Sometimes research actually catalyzes media attention and that attention stays evergreen: I had a call recently with a researcher I’m working with who published a paper on the effectiveness of carbon offsets years ago and who still gets calls from media about offsets, asking for quotes and background interviews.

But a better bet for spotlighting a problem is an op-ed such as Herring’s, which reminds me of the way Matthew Desmond might first approach the issue. Investing in the creation of such thought pieces is one of the most cost-effective investments a research-driven organization can make — even for your most junior researchers.

I rarely read comments on articles, but I did for Herring’s, and here’s one that stood out:

I will say my knee/gut jerk reaction was to disagree with the headline and then I did what any intelligent person would do: I read the entire article. I learned something. My mind was expanded and even changed. Kudos to the author.

That’s a great op-ed.