Want to speak directly to a community? Write an ethnic media op-ed

Op-Ed By Ben Henry

So, your group or organization has asked you, oh intrepid progressive communications operative, to develop an “ethnic media strategy.” Congratulations! You are taking an important step toward leading with culturally appropriate racial equity. But where to begin?

Well, there are many tools to choose from when developing such a strategy. Here, I will specifically discuss the magical powers of the ethnic media op-ed.

What is an op-ed?

An op-ed is an opinion essay authored by a community member not affiliated with the publication. It is a commentary written from the perspective of community stakeholders, not the newspaper’s editorial board. It is usually a response to a news event or earlier article.

An op-ed is a step beyond a letter to the editor, in that it is given more space and prominent placement, and will often feature the bio and headshot of the author. Op-eds are expected to be opinionated and written with a sharp perspective and lens.

When pushing a progressive campaign or applying your frame to a local issue, the ethnic media op-ed is a powerful arrow in your quiver.

5 reasons you should submit an ethnic media op-ed

  1. It’s a chance to speak directly to a community.

    The advantage of an op-ed is that it’s in your own voice. Rather than getting your message out through a news release, research report or talking points that will be interpreted and filtered by a reporter, this is an opportunity to speak directly to readers with your unique perspective and story.

  2. You can reach — and empower — audiences you would not otherwise reach.

    When I’m chillin’ at my umma’s house chowing down on kimchi fried rice, I don’t see copies of the Seattle Times or the Tacoma News-Tribune lying around the house. I see the Korean Times.

    In our communications work, a lot of energy is spent on getting coverage from mainstream media. Which is great, and important. But such a strategy ignores significant swaths of people who have at least as much or more at stake on your given issue than those you reach through mainstream media.

    When you think about it, folks in these communities are the ones we need to reach the most. Often facing language barriers and other challenges, immigrant and first-generation populations are among the most disenfranchised voices around, and are more likely to not have access to information. If information is power, reaching these audiences is how you empower them.

  3. There is potential to make an enormous impact.

    In Puget Sound, there are about 1.2 million – a little over 30 percent of the total population – who are people of color. I don’t know the exact numbers, but if you combined the total reach of all ethnic media in Puget Sound, you would be able to reach a large chunk of our rapidly growing population.

    And one could argue that ethnic media op-eds are more impactful for each individual who sees it, because people reading perspectives in their own community – especially if it’s in their own language – pay even more attention, as there is less clutter for your message to cut through.

  4. Ethnic media are hungry for material.

    Mainstream publications get a lot of submissions. With these publications, you can end up spending a lot of energy on an op-ed that won’t ever see the light of day. With ethnic media, however, editors are always on the hunt for content. If you can provide material on a hot topic that is relevant to their readers, you have reasonable likelihood for a successful placement.

  5. You can apply your lens to very specific examples relevant to that community.

    One of my favorite op-eds I’ve ever submitted was a piece I co-authored with Sharon Maeda in the Seattle Globalist on the need for the Seattle Police Department to implement a culturally appropriate community policing model following the murder of the International District’s beloved sheriff, Donnie Chin.

    This was a rare opportunity to apply my organization’s criminal justice frame to a local situation. In real time, we were able to impact the framework of the conversation on how to respond to the murder, making it less focused on closing down hookah bars and more about the need for deep, systemic reform of the way SPD does its work.

    Ultimately, your ideas will have the most impact when they are applied to current events within a community.

Tips on submitting an op-ed

So, now that you are clearly sold on the powers of the ethnic media op-ed, how do you get in on this action? Here are some tips on how to submit:

Customize your news hook: Come with a community-specific angle. Last fall, my organization was advocating for campaign finance reform through the Honest Elections initiative. Communities of color would gain a much stronger political voice through passage of this initiative. And so we dug into the numbers and released a white paper with Seattle community-specific findings that illustrated how these communities would benefit. Editors appreciate well-researched and factual information relevant to their respective communities.

The writer’s voice should resonate: Choosing the author is important. For Honest Elections, we found members of each community to author op-eds. If you are working from established talking points, it is helpful to brainstorm with community-based authors on how best to articulate those talking points. For instance, one op-ed, authored by APACE’s  Rick Polintan, that was placed in the Filipino American Herald started off like this:

As the old saying goes, “kung ano ang puno, siya ang bunga” — “whatever the tree, so is the fruit.” That can apply to our American political system – when the tree is consumed with money and greed, it can produce bad apples.

Credibility means everything, and you want to put authors out there who are recognized by that community and able to speak in their own voice.

The devil’s in the details: When working with an editor, make sure you get clear specifications involving the deadline, length (usually between 500 and 800 words), photo submissions, author’s biography, etc. If the publication is not in English, check if they have translators. Turn in clean work with no typos. Double-check and link to your statistics and references. Depending on the publication, you may be asked to provide sources. And, if possible, adhere to Associated Press style, though don’t let that stop you from submitting. And allow time, it may take a couple of weeks before your op-ed is published.

Happy writing!

Ben Henry is starting work in February 2016 as Communications Programs Lead, New Initiatives at SEIU 775 Benefits Group. He previously was Senior Policy Associate at the Alliance for a Just Society, and is a former Board President of Asian Pacific Americans for Civic Empowerment (APACE). Prior to working as a progressive activist, Ben spent 12 years working at newspapers in Honolulu and Bremerton. He can be reached at benhenry20@gmail.com.

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