Through our membership in the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, we are fortunate to have a group of fellow editors who deal with many of the same topics we face. In discussions of our shared experiences, we build and refine the principles guiding our reporting, journalistic ethics, and editorial page character.
Recently, we discussed what makes a letter to the editor acceptable in our publications. It was thoughtful, diverse, and challenging.
Some editors favor printing almost everything and leaving it to the reader to sort fact from fiction, truth from lie, and reality from fantasy. They were in the minority. We know that philosophy doesn’t work. People often accept what they read or see as truth, especially if it aligns with their prejudices.
Others say it is up to the newspaper to do the fact-checking on letters, inform the letter writer of factual errors, and ask them to rewrite or delete those comments. Some factual errors are easy to correct, such as the date the Bill of Rights became law – Dec. 15, 1791. But other facts, such as deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic or mankind’s contribution to climate change, are more difficult to establish in people’s minds.
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence,” Founding Father and America’s second president said. Overcoming inclinations and passions with facts was challenging then and is even more so in our Internet Age.
We can ask writers to cite their sources for information we find questionable, and then check the source’s credibility. This can be a time-consuming but necessary step. Websites such as PolitiFact, FactCheck, Snopes, and AP Fact Check allow for a quick check on the truth or falseness of information.
The editor’s challenge is not taking sides in choosing what to print and what not to print. Misinformation should be corrected without favor, whether from the left, right, or middle.
“As editors and publishers, I think we should take pride in publishing opinions that are contrary to our own – as long as they are responsible and factually correct,” one editor wrote. “If a reader states something incorrect, an editorial note is preferable (in my opinion) to deleting the incorrect statement. It avoids censorship and gives the rest of the readers a chance to have as much information as possible,” he writes.
Not everyone agrees with giving the editor the last word by attaching an editor’s note. It is seen as an unfair advantage. It also accepts the position of printing falsehoods, with which we disagree.
Today, writers can too easily find information on the internet that supports their point of view, insert it in a letter, and claim it to be fact. As we all know, the internet is full of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and outright lies.
“While we are not in the business of censorship, we also should not be in the business of spreading propaganda,” one Society editor wrote. “As we have seen with social media and online commenting, the internet is extremely good at radicalizing people, getting them to believe false information and inspiring them to turn on their neighbors,” he writes.
“The local newspaper should be a counterbalance to that trend, we should be in the business of presenting a realistic picture of issues, not internet-fueled propaganda,” he says.
Letters to the editor give our readers a chance to say how they feel about the challenges our communities face, how they are being dealt with, and how our elected officials are performing. We encourage our readers to write. The best editorial page is one on which our readers provide a wide variety of views.
But we also want letters that provide passionate points of view.
“Letters to the editor that aren’t ‘offensive’ to anybody usually are meaningless to everybody,” a Society editor wrote. “If editors withhold letters because the opinion might offend someone, then they’d be better off publishing nothing but recipes, bad poetry, and thank-you notes. Even then you can’t guarantee someone won’t be offended by a broccoli and cheese casserole recipe,” an editor wrote.
Only being exposed to those ideas we agree stunts our growth as citizens. Reading what others think might give us new insights, helping expand our outlook. Those new ideas might make us more tolerant, more willing to listen, and more likely to compromise.
To apply our standards fairly, we must establish them with our readers through our letters to the editor policy. We publish these rules a couple times a year. These standards apply to all writers and remove political bias from the process.
Letters can offer a “safety valve” for people in the community who don’t feel heard to have their opinion published. “Better a hateful bigot express himself with a vile opinion than with harassment or violence,” one Society editor told us.
Letters give us insight into the community we live in, its problems, and solutions to those problems. They can reflect the political temperature of the community – are we civil with one another or is discontent boiling beneath the surface?
Letters can give our community leaders direction on housing, daycare, and other needs. They can provide our clergy insight into suffering among citizens who need someone to reach out to them with a helping hand. They motivate citizens to make changes that make our communities healthier, more welcoming, and economically stronger.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” the late New York U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said. Today, truth and facts have been turned on their head. People’s opinions become their facts now, their truth, repeated with passion, anger, and, at times, threats.
Our policies for accepting letters can be found on Page 5.