Opinion Piece

Social and Rhetorical Functions

An opinion piece is a prose genre used by newspapers, magazines, and similar publications to offer diverse commentary on issues currently in the news. Although not strictly designed to balance the editorial perspective of the newspaper or magazine, opinion pieces provide a space for news publications to share arguments that may challenge their readers or the publication’s official editorial position, as stated in an editorial. According to New York Times journalist Remy Tumin, opinion articles were designed “to push readers into considering points of view just outside their comfort zones.”1

Opinion pieces are sometimes used by politicians, business leaders, scientists, academics, and others with relevant expertise to advocate for legislation or policy initiatives connected to a news item. Recent examples of such opinion pieces include professor and pandemic historian Jacob Steere Williams arguing the College of Charleston follow CDC, not state, guidance when developing COVID-19 policies and Utah Senator Mitt Romney defending the filibuster as a defining and positive element of the US Senate.

News publications also frequently use the genre as a forum for individuals personally impacted by a current event to share an insider’s perspective of what is happening and how it what is happening is affecting everyday people. For instance, high-school junior Will Larkins recently wrote an opinion in The New York Times about the negative impact of Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay bill.

History and Development

Different newspapers across the country began publishing commentary or opinion pages as far back as 1912, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that these pieces began to be referred to as “op-eds.”2 According to media scholar Michael J. Socolow, the New York World in the 1920s published a “Page Op” section opposite the editorial page where staff columnists commented on “arts, culture, and passing scene.”3 The World’s “Page Op” section has been cited as an important antecedent to the famous New York Times op-ed section, which first appeared in September 1970. However, Socolow suggests that earlier columns that ran as part of the Times’s Saturday “Topic of the Times” series may have had a greater impact on the Times’s approach to opinion pieces.4

Sept. 21, 1970 announcement of New York Times Op-Ed page

Regardless of when exactly the first op-ed page was published or who deserves credit for inventing and shaping the genre, Socolow suggests the genre’s emergence in the 1950s and 1960s was tied into beliefs about the role journalists and newspapers played in the development of a public sphere in which Americans could reasonably and intelligently debate events of the day. New York Times editorial board member John B. Oakes proposed the idea of an op-ed page in the 1960s and had long believed, according to Socolow, “that a newspaper most effectively fulfills its social and civic responsibilities by challenging authority, acting independently, and inviting dissent.”5

The New York Times in 2021 stopped using the op-ed label and started labeling in-house columns as “Opinions” and outside perspectives as “Guest Essays.” In explaining this decision, Opinion Editor Kathleen Kingsbury stated that, with digital publication, opinions were no longer geographically opposite to the editorial page. More importantly, dropping the “clubby newspaper jargon,” Kingsbury wrote, helps the paper “be far more inclusive in explaining how and why we do our work,” something especially important during a moment when legacy media institutions have lost public trust.6

Stylistic and Substantive Elements

A significant organizing principle of opinion pieces is the recognition and serious consideration of different points of view, including ones that directly challenge the writer’s stated position.

This organizing principle surfaces stylistically in the frequent use of phrases like “on the one hand,” “on the other hand,” “some may argue,” and others that signal to readers the writer is aware of the multiple positions others hold on the issue at hand. For instance, then California governor Ronald Reagan uses similar phrasing when acknowledging those who might disagree with the proposed welfare reforms laid out in his 1971 New York Times op-ed: “Some say the solution is to let the Federal Government take over. The answer to that could be that we are turning it over to those who caused the mess the whole nation is in now.”7 In a 1991 op-ed arguing President George Bush should begin enacting environmental policy by replacing the White House lawn with a meadow, Michael Pollan anticipates objections to his argument: “The democratic symbolism of the lawn may be appealing, but it carries and absurd, and today, unsupportable price tag.”8 

We also see this organizing principle at work, beyond the level of style, in extended passages where writers rehearse and respond to counter-arguments, as in this example from a New York Times opinion article by humanities and law professor Stanley Fish in favor of universities requiring a core curriculum:

The arguments pro and con are familiar. On one side the assertion that a core curriculum provides students with the distilled wisdom of the western tradition and prepares them for life. On the other side the assertion that a core curriculum packages and sells the prejudices and biases of the reigning elite and so congeals knowledge rather than advancing it. 

Have we lost our way or finally found it? Thirty-five years ago there was no such thing as a gay and lesbian studies program; now you can build a major around it. For some this development is a sign that a brave new world has arrived; for others it marks the beginning of the end of civilization.

It probably is neither; curricular alternatives are just not that world-shaking. The philosophical baggage that burdens this debate should be jettisoned and replaced with a more prosaic question: What can a core curriculum do that the proliferation of options and choices (two words excoriated in the ACTA report) cannot? The answer to that question is given early in the report before it moves on to its more polemical pages. An “important benefit of a coherent core curriculum is its ability to foster a ‘common conversation’ among students, connecting them more closely with faculty and with each other.”9

This organizing principle of appearing open to opposing views while also staking out one’s own position connects back to one of the social purposes of the genre: to create a public square where challenging ideas can be debated openly and reasonably.


  1. Tumin, Remy (3 December 2017). “The Op-Ed Pages, Explained.” The New York Times.
  2. Socolow, Michael J. (2010). “A Profitable Public Sphere: The Creation of the New York Times Op-Ed Page”Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, p. 282.
  3. Socolow, Michael J. (2010). “A Profitable Public Sphere: The Creation of the New York Times Op-Ed Page”Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, p. 282.
  4. Socolow, Michael J. (2010). “A Profitable Public Sphere: The Creation of the New York Times Op-Ed Page”Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, p. 282.
  5. Socolow, Michael J. (2010). “A Profitable Public Sphere: The Creation of the New York Times Op-Ed Page”Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, p. 283.
  6. Kingsbury, Kathleen (26 April 2021). “Why The New York Times Is Retiring the Term ‘Op-Ed.'” The New York Times.
  7. Reagan, Ronald (1 April 1971). “Welfare Is a Cancer.” The New York Times.
  8. Pollan, Michael (1991). “Op-Classic 1991: Abolish the White House Lawn.” The New York Times.
  9. Fish, Stanley (24 August 2009). “What Should Colleges Teach?” The New York Times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *