The Inlander/ March 1, 2008
Editors take great pride when they know their newspapers are “making a difference.” A strong barometer is the editorial page, and specifically letters to the editor. So why do so many editors stifle the exchange of ideas during the months-long election season?
The volume of letters indeed increases dramatically with orchestrated campaigns. At the same time, letters reflect a basic mission of newspapers: To get people to think and share their ideas.
In that regard, special guidelines should be in force as editors prepare for election season. That can be done, however, in concert with giving as many readers access to the page as possible. The best avenue is to use a sharp editing pencil – or the “delete” button on your keyboard. Inform candidates and readers of the rules up front. It’s an excellent opportunity for newspapers to state the do’s and don’ts in a column early in the campaign season. Circumstances might even warrant a second or third column.
Following are some guidelines that will help keep a vibrant editorial page:
Allow candidates to submit letters – with restrictions: Candidates should have the ability to write letters in certain circumstances – for example, in response to campaign charges leveled against them in another letter. Keep in mind that candidates have the ability and opportunity to advance their positions on issues in a variety of avenues – and not just through paid advertising. Candidates will be covered in news columns, and they naturally have a cadre of letter-writers. Be attentive to the savvy candidates who methodically submit letters as a strategy to supplement or replace paid advertising.
Limit length and frequency of letters: Editors might want to impose more restrictive limits with the goal of still giving everyone the opportunity to weigh in on candidates and issues. The limit can vary from 200 to 450 words. Fairness and consistency should govern. It’s customary at many newspapers to limit authors to one letter per month at any time of year. One standard might be to limit individuals to one letter per ballot question or candidate race.
Set ground rules for rebuttals: A good rule of thumb is to allow each individual two letters. In other words, each has an opportunity for a rebuttal after the initial exchange. Someone inevitably will cry foul – that the other person has had the final say – but that always will be the case. Let each side get two shots, and then recommend the individuals pick up the telephone and continue their exchange privately.
State deadlines, including a separate deadline for letters that raise new issues: It’s pretty easy to pick a date when the final letters will be accepted. The more important deadline is for letters that raise new issues that might warrant a response. Eleventh-hour charges fall into two camps, each prompting a different handling. Some letters are strategically lobbed even though the information is known well in advance. Editors are well within their bounds to reject this type of letter altogether – even if the point might have proved legitimate had the letter arrived earlier. In rare cases, letters might address an issue that truly just came to light. The newspaper might decide to publish the letter, but let the “opponent” see the letter in advance and write a response. Both letters would be published alongside each other with an explanatory editor’s note.
Don’t let candidates use the letters column to respond to issues raised in paid advertising: Exceptions might arise, but newspapers should be careful about publishing letters that react to paid ads. The best guideline is that candidates respond to the message in the same avenue as the original message. Candidates should respond to paid ads with paid ads. Campaigns are right to be upset if their paid ads are rebutted on a regular basis in the free letters column. The advertising department has an interest in this policy, too.
Verify all letters, preferably by a phone call: It should be standard practice not to publish any letters lacking full identification for purposes of verification – name, complete address and phone number. For letters advanced by e-mail, be certain that the e-mail address is that of the writer and not someone else. In addition, pay attention to those letters that all originate from the same fax machine.
Make readers aware that letters will be edited aggressively, especially as the election nears and letters repeat themes: Readers want to know who is supporting a particular candidate or initiative, and the reasons. Editors should focus on the “who” and “why” when editing letters. Certain phrases are superfluous and common to many letters.
The intensity and frequency of letter-writing campaigns has prompted some editors to begin charging for certain endorsement letters. Charging for letters is a slippery slope, however. Beyond the ethical questions, editors and publishers will be hard pressed to set guidelines, and stick to them, to differentiate those that qualify as “free” letters and those that require writers to “ante” up to get their views published.
Two reasons cited for implementing this policy are because the letters lack substance or because the free letters are replacing paid ads. If those truly are the reasons, many newspapers better rethink what kind of letters they accept year-round.