Jan. 17 2017

Strong Opinions: Mailman Students Master the Op-Ed

Through persuasive, jargon-free arguments, first-year MPH students take on topics from anti-smoking to infectious disease

Over the course of the fall semester, first-year MPH students tried their hands at opinion writing in a pilot exercise that yielded deft considerations of topics from anti-smoking to infectious disease. A nearly ubiquitous genre that seeks to influence policy through persuasion, style, and autobiography, op-eds appear in most daily newspapers, online journals, and academic publications. Even as interest from traditional news sources grows ever more mercurial, op-eds remain a reliable way for public health ideas to enter mainstream discourse.

“We selected the op-ed form for several reasons,” said Peter Taback, Chief Communications Officer, who devised the pilot program with Thom Blaylock, associate professor of Health Policy and Management, and support from the Office of Education. “Restricted word counts and enormous competition mean op-ed writers have to get down to business immediately, make their case, offer concise examples, and conclude. There’s no time for academic jargon.”

Incorporated into the Foundations studio of the Mailman School core, the assignment asked students to determine their topic, complete an initial draft, and meet for repeated peer-review sessions to revise and improve based on others’ feedback. Blaylock built peer review into the assignment as one way to guarantee opaque language would be left at the door.

Though most readers at the Mailman School recognize the prestige associated with publishing an op-ed in more competitive outlets, the assignment also required students to identify a target publication and to justify how their ideas met the guidelines of newspapers that might pose a better chance of publication. By one account, The New York Times receives approximately 1,200 submissions each week and runs between four and six unsolicited pieces. With greater interest in helping public health ideas gain a toehold where they haven't had one, students considered smaller newspapers consumed in their hometowns as proving grounds for their best ideas.

For Julie Kornfeld, Vice Dean of Education at the Mailman School, the pilot op-ed project marks the start of efforts to train Master’s students in non-academic forms of communication and to sharpen their ability to write effectively for new audiences.

“Peer-reviewed journals are important for academics and they serve an important role in moving public health science forward,” she says. “But they don’t directly reach the public, change public opinion, or motivate voters. We know public health ideas need to reach new audiences and they need to get there in new ways.”

With the assistance of the School’s Core teaching assistants, Transmission identified five of the strongest op-eds to share in this back-to-school edition.

Health in All Policies: A Policy Framework for Reparations for African Americans
Keianna Dixon

The Elephant in the Room: Incentivizing Discussions About Death and Dying
Derek Fine 

California’s Proposition 56 May be More Curse than Blessing: Our Obligation to Prevent Unfair Burdens to Low SES Populations
Katie Glockner

The Global Surgical Disease Burden: A Problem Worth Solving
Ali Rae

Should Emergency Physicians Prescribe Naloxone?
C. Hayes Wong, MD