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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Tressie McMillan Cottom and the importance of opinion writing

DTH Photo Illustration.

Bear with me: I’m about to break the journalistic fourth wall and write an opinion piece on opinion writing.

The New York Times announced on March 9 that UNC professor Tressie McMillan Cottom would join its opinion staff as a columnist.

Cottom is a sociologist, MacArthur Fellow and professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science.

I was first exposed to her work in an American studies class on intersectionality, where we read her book “Thick: And Other Essays,” discussing her experiences as a Black woman from the South and grappling with oppression at the intersection of her racial and gender identities.

Her conversations about wealth, womanhood and physical appearances struck a chord with me as a young woman in academia and a writer. Her perspectives were thought-provoking and completely reformed how I thought about my relationship with myself and others — both privately and professionally.

To see an academic I look up to pursue a career in opinion writing felt reassuring and inspiring. It helped me understand how opinion journalism is changing, and how important it is for women and journalists of color to be represented in this shift.

Opinion writing differs drastically from reporting. Opinion writers are not objective conveyers of the news, but engage with complicated discussions or complex issues and provide their own perspectives. They rely on truth and fact to build their own understanding for readers who might lack the same access to information or diverse views.

Opinion writing is a necessary aspect of journalism for its contributions to public discourse. These contributions, however, are only possible when our newsrooms and opinion desks are inclusive.

Editorial boards made up entirely of wealthy, white men are a disservice to opinion writing — which aims to provide a narrative that may not easily be found in public conversation. The opinions of these writers would no different than the norms that opinion writing attempts to stray from.

Newsrooms without comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion efforts contribute to this injustice, both for reporters and editorialists, as well as the communities their work serves.

As a writer and consumer, I know how powerful and influential opinion journalism can be, in ways that reported journalism cannot reach. By breaking from the bounds of objectivity, columns and editorials can shed light on injustice and actively push for material change for marginalized communities.

These benefits cannot be reaped if women and people of color are not given the same access to opinion desks within newsrooms, both large and small. Exclusivity in this field is immense harm to communities.

To see an influential and awarded woman take on the job that I know and love makes me endlessly happy.

I can only hope that this field works to uplift and value the women, LGBTQ+ and people of color, so opinion writing can be the powerful tool for social and economic justice I know it can be.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, an associate professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science was named a MacArthur Fellow in the foundation's Class of 2020. Photo courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


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Caitlyn Yaede

Caitlyn Yaede is the 2023-24 print managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel and oversees weekly print production. She previously served as the DTH's opinion editor and summer editor. Caitlyn is a public policy master's student at UNC.