How to start: Send an email to [email protected] outlining what you’d like to write about. News services often have a long history of writing about topics so we may have already published or commissioned a piece about your idea, so please first read through the opinion section of www.bhekisisa.org to see what has been published. If your idea is interesting, our editors will work with you to tweak it so that it adds something new to the conversation.
What makes a good opinion piece? A good opinion piece makes a coherent, novel argument with enough background to allow any reader to understand what you are writing about. It has a unique voice – whether that of a person with first-hand experience of an issue, an expert, a policy maker, health worker, etc. It presents a problem and a solution. At Bhekisisa, we’re focused on solutions-based journalism, so the solution is just as important as the problem.
What an opinion piece is not: An opinion piece is NOT a “backgrounder” on a subject; it HAS to argue for or against something, in other words, argue that an issue needs to be addressed in a certain way, or that a particular way of behaving impacts negatively or positively on an issue. It has to answer a question, for instance: does alcohol lead to sexual violence, or why do fewer men go for HIV testing than women or what’s keeping people from accessing abortion services.
Don’t rehash what we already know. Pieces that re-state well-known relationships between issues without offering a new angle or solution don’t work. We don’t want explainers or pieces that simply outline the background to an issue.
Above all, thou shalt not jargon your audience to death. Some of our best and most read opinion pieces have come from award-winning scientists that deal with some heavy science, but we’ve worked with them to outline their arguments in easily understandable language and metaphors that our readers can identify with. So make sure to cut out the scientific or NGO jargon.
We want to hear from you, but we want your aunt to be able to understand what you’re saying as well. We’ll work with you to translate your science into “people speak” but bear with us – it takes time to “polish” such pieces, and we get many, many requests for that.
If you’re patient, we’ll work your piece together to hopefully share your passion not only with policy makers and experts but ordinary readers.
Why good editing takes time: We’re a small team and juggle editing opinion pieces in between covering news online and in the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper. We edit pieces thoroughly because we’re just as eager as the authors of opinion pieces for many people to read them. So expect your edits to take a couple of weeks. Interested in pitching something to coincide with an international “health day” like World TB Day? Think about pitching it three weeks ahead of time at least. We are highly unlikely to be able to review and edit your piece a week ahead of when you’d like to have it published.
What we expect:
— Stick to the word count we give you – if you don’t we’ll have to cut it down. A lot of factors decide how long a piece can run from the idea itself to the number of words we can physically fit on a page. Remember, longer isn’t always better. Most opinion pieces are about 800 to up to 1200 words long.
— Reference, reference, reference. At the Bhekisisa Mail & Guardian Centre for Health Journalism we pride ourselves on being a news service readers can trust. To ensure this, we have a unique referencing style that requires you to:
— Cite only research that has been published in peer reviewed journals or in reputable reports, such as those of the World Health Organisation or United Nations.
— You must provide us with the URL to the report or study you’re referencing when you submit your article, e.g., in brackets after the sentence that references the research, e.g. [URL], or in a comment box. Please don’t use hyperlink actual text in your word document or use footnotes.
— We only publish statistics that can be linked to the original source, in other words, the study which produced that statistics. So, if the health minister or a health organisation quote statistics, you can’t requote them and reference the organisation or minister. You’d have to reference the source they quoted and check that they indeed quoted the source correctly. For instance, if the health minister says one in three pregnant women in South Africa tests positive, you can’t use him as a source for that statistic. You’d have to go to the health department’s latest antenatal survey and quote the figure directly from that survey.
— When stating a fact, you must say the year and publication in which it appeared, e.g.: “Research published in 2014 in The Lancet medical journal found that decriminalising sex work could prevent between a third and almost half of all new HIV infections globally in the next 10 years among workers and clients.”
In the case of a report: “Here in South Africa, an estimated 155 000 people earn a living from sex work and between 40 and 70% of female sex workers may be living with HIV, shows research released in 2015 by the South African National Aids Council.”
Examples of opinion pieces that have done well: