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Tips for Writing Op-Eds on National Issues Forums

On October 15th, 2007 David Mathews (president of the Kettering Foundation) sent the following message to Directors and Alumni of the National Issues Forums Institute. NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher was serving on the NIFI Board of Directors, so she received this message.  We shared this message as part of the 2007-2009 Democracy Communications Network project, which encouraged leaders in public engagement to write op-eds and letters to the editor on a coordinated basis to increase our collective impact.

Endorsements of citizen juries and citizen congresses by two prominent politicians (Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the United Kingdom and John Edwards here) create an opportunity to get greater visibility for all types of citizen forums.

AmericaSpeaks and other organizations are preparing op-ed pieces, not to endorse particular politicians, but to create greater awareness of public deliberation. None have a stronger track record than the National Issues Forums, and the issue books in the National Issues Forums series can be used in any type of forum to move opinions from hasty reactions to more shared and reflective public judgment.

The National Issues Forums Institute has had an op-ed drafted that you can adapt to explain what you see as the benefits of the NIF forums and books. If you are so inclined, you might want to send what you write to your local newspaper.

Suggestions for Writing Editorials Concerning Public Deliberation Following Candidate Call for a Citizen Congress

Prepared for National Issues Forums Institute
October 15, 2007

We aware that some of you routinely write editorials and letters to the editor, and that some of you are also regular contributors to blogs and online forums. For those of you who haven’t done this recently, we have some suggestions, as a reminder of what newspaper editors look for and how to get your editorial in print. We have also included suggestions about what you may want to include in your piece, and how to make the case for involving the public in policy making by referring to what you have experienced in your own community.

A few things to keep in mind when you write editorials*

  • Check with your local newspaper for guidelines on editorials and how to submit them, which are posted on the newspaper’s web site.
  • Timeliness is essential. Editors link editorials to recent stories. It’s important that you send your editorial over the next few days, linking it—preferably in the first paragraph—to the announcement of Sen. Edwards’ proposal.
  • Length is important. Keep your editorial brief, no longer than about 750 words. Editors generally will not take the time to cut down a piece that is too long for the space assigned to editorials.
  • Be clear about your main point and state it clearly in your opening paragraph. Most readers look at the first paragraph to determine whether they should read the rest.
  • Your editorial should feature what you have done locally in your own community with deliberation, and its impact on individuals and on the community as a whole. Write in your own personal voice. Newspaper editorials are not academic articles or analytic pieces. They are statements of personal opinion. The editorial should be about your own experience and your personal convictions about public life and deliberation’s place in it.
  • Make sure readers know why they should care. Why would expanded efforts to make deliberation a regular part of American public life make a difference?
  • Your final paragraph should be a vivid summary of your main point.
  • Remember to include your name, address, e-mail address, and telephone number. Newspapers routinely contact individuals in advance of running their editorials, or when they want to discuss suggested changes.

Suggestions about what you may want to say in your editorial

You might comment on symptoms of what has gone wrong with the nation’s political system

  • Sen. Edwards has endorsed a deliberative Citizen Congress as part of his repeated emphasis on acknowledging “how broken Washington is” and the need to change “the way Washington works.”
  • There has been serious erosion of public trust in the nation ‘s leaders, a decline in confidence in Congress and the President and their ability to do what is right. A July 2007 CBS News/NYT poll showed that the percentage of Americans who think they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has declined sharply from its peak after September 11 from 55% in 2001 to 24% in 2007.
  • There is widespread concern about legislative gridlock regarding some of the nation’s most pressing issues (including health care reform, the federal debt, and the U.S. role in the Middle East) and the inability of the political system to achieve a workable consensus about what should be done.
  • Increasingly, Americans think government does not care about what most people think. A March 2007 poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that only 34 percent of Americans agree that “government cares about what people like me think.”
  • The American public needs a way of deliberating and then expressing its views beyond elections. On the issues of greatest concern—such as Iraq, jobs, taxes, and healthcare—most Americans have no way to wrestle with these issues or to express their considered views about them.

You might comment that the NIF was conceived to respond to these concerns…

  • The NIF provides a way in which millions of Americans in communities across the country have a voice in nonpartisan forums, in which they move toward common ground on pressing issues. The idea that citizens should have a greater role in deliberating about public decisions has been tested over the past two decades, and occasions for public deliberation about pressing issues have proliferated. What has been happening in forums in your community [provide local examples] shows that this model works. More than 25 years after the NIF started, this is no longer a start-up enterprise. It is a familiar and well-established feature in [your town] and in hundreds of communities.
  • The NIF provides a rejoinder to those who dismiss public deliberation as unrealistic and unrealizable. What has been happening throughout the United States in communities that convene NIF forums bears out the hope that something like the Citizen’s Congress that Sen. Edwards has endorsed is both realistic and long overdue. The NIF network, the most extensive and one of the oldest networks for public deliberation, shows what can happen when a sustained effort is made to open the door and let the people back in.
  • It’s about time national candidates recognize that public deliberation deserves a prominent place on any list of ways to fix a political system that’s broken.
  • Former President Jimmy Carter, who along with former president Gerald Ford was co-host of one of the NIF’s first national meetings, put it in these words: “Part of the responsibility of this association ought to be how we can magnify what has been learned, not doubled but magnified a thousand times over.” The new proposal put forward by Sen. Edwards for a Citizen’s Congress is likely to energize national discussion about public deliberation and its potential.

You might comment on what the NIF forums have achieved…

  • The NIF forums are one of the few places in most communities where a public conversation takes place among people who hold different views and are allied with different political parties. These forums focus on issues and shared values, not personalities and political parties.
  • The NIF forums have made a difference. Forums in Cincinnati on the race issue in 2002 helped to defuse a dangerously tense situation and helped to create new bonds and new community-wide organizations. In Austin, Texas, a series of forums on the future of Medicare brought together a wide range of participants, who discovered common values and visions across their differences. In these and many other situations, the NIF forums provide an example of how life in a democratic community ought to work.
  • On some issues, deliberation has produced the kind of eye-opening, horizon-widening impact that advocates of deliberation have long foreseen. On other issues, these forums have helped people move beyond a narrow sense of self-interest to a more inclusive sense of how this affects us. In the process, they have opened up new ground for broadly acceptable public solutions, common ground for public acting.
  • The habit of public deliberation helps to build skills and bolsters confidence that communities can respond effectively when problems arise. In many communities where NIF forums have been held, coming together as a community becomes a collective habit that changes the nature of public conversations.

* This document borrows from materials prepared by AmericaSpeaks and Duke News.

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