May 29, 2024

The role of Letters to the Editor in newspapers

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BY REED ANFINSON

Co-Publisher,

Grant County Herald

As we enter the 2022 political season, we expect to see an increasing number of “letters to the editor” submitted to the newspaper from local residents and subscribers. 

We believe that a robust conversation on many topics of interest to our readers is essential to understanding one another. It is why we encourage our readers to write letters to the editor. Through those letters we gain insights into different points of view, becoming aware of the diversity of the people we live among.

In our internet world, where there is so much anger, sarcasm, and disrespect for others on social media, our editorial page should be a forum for a civil and honest conversation. Letters to the editor provide our readers that safe space for what we hope is a respectful debate.

However, we have a few rules that apply to the letters we publish. Here are the rules for getting published:

– Because we do receive letters from far and wide, from people who have no connection to our communities, our first rule is that the writer be local, or have a direct connection to the area. If a person is a subscriber, they have proven interest in the community. Being a subscriber significantly improves the chances of a letter being published.

– All letters must be signed with a complete address and have a phone number so we can verify authorship. We only use the writer’s name and town in the newspaper. If authorship is in question, we will try to verify. If we cannot, the letter will not be printed. We do not print unsigned letters.

– Letters should be no more than 350 words. State clearly and precisely your point of view.

– Candidate endorsement letters can be no more than 200 words and must be paid for at 10 cents a word before printing.

– We ask that writers know the facts of what they are writing about. Rumors and half-truths are not the foundation on which letters should be based. We don’t print provably false information. 

– We don’t print letters that attack individuals. You can challenge a belief or a way of life that you don’t agree with, but you can’t attack the individual whose behavior you disagree with or find offensive. There are a few exceptions to this rule, including elected officials, celebrities, and other people deemed public figures.

– Language that threatens harm or incites action to harm an individual or group is hate speech. We don’t print it.

– All letters are subject to editing for grammar, clarity, civility, and style. Letters with inappropriate or offensive language will not be published. 

– We allow one letter per writer every 30 days.

– When there are several letters on the same topic, we reserve the right to print one representative of the group.

– Letters must be original and intended for the local audience. Form letters,  letters sent to multiple news outlets, will not be published. We want letters written by individuals stating their unique opinion in their own words.

– Do not plagiarize! Letters that purport to come from you, should  not be simply copied from a political website like last week’s letter titled “How a school district works” was. If a letter writer  wants to use other sources, credit that author or risk being banned from writing further letters to the Herald.

– No new issues may be raised in letters two weeks before an election. This allows time for a person to respond to a claim made by an opponent.

– Candidates who have been attacked in a letter for a position or action will be allowed to respond. 

We won’t hold out letters simply because we disagree with an opinion. 

If we were to hold all letters that offended our readers, we would be a weakened and poor reflection of the depth and breadth of people living in our community.

While we won’t print wording that is provably false, we will continue to print letters that offend sensibilities, are hurtful, ridicule, and express intolerance.

Why do newspapers print letters that many would see as offensive? To help us answer that question, we turned to our colleagues in the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

“First is the ‘safety valve’ role of letters to the editor – better a hateful bigot express himself with a vile opinion than with harassment or violence,” Bill Reader, an associate professor at E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, said.

Second is the importance of ensuring the community remains aware of the broad range of thought among its people. The letters we print allow the community to look at itself and ask, “Is this a reflection of who we are?” Those who disagree with what they read have the right to try to change that perception with their own letters.

Finally, it is said that the best response to disagreeable speech is more speech, not censorship. The long-term benefits of robust free speech to democracy’s health far outweigh the short-term pain, discomfort, or outrage caused by points of view we find offensive.

Only being exposed to those ideas with which we agree builds walls to challenging thoughts that might give us new insights and new perspectives that help our frame of reference on the world expand. Those new ideas might make us more tolerant of others; more willing to listen and compromise.

Letters to the editor offer a safe space for what is generally a civil conversation. And, perhaps, by being civil in what we have to say to one another, we open the door to teaching  or learning, or both.

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