By Jim Pumarlo
Letters to the editor truly are the lifeblood of editorial pages. Letters underscore the value of editorial pages and represent an active citizenry.
But the letters column, if it is to serve its greatest purpose, must be monitored or it can quickly become nondescript. The dos and don’ts of letters should be well understood by everyone at the newspaper, and it is equally important to let readers know the ground rules.
Too often, editors give free reign to letters and are hesitant to impose restrictions on “free expression” of ideas. In reality, a letters column without policies may prove more detrimental than beneficial to the exchange of ideas.
Here’s a list of basic dos and don’ts to ensure that the letters column will remain relevant:
Limit length: Readers have limited attention span for lengthy stories. The same is true for letters. Editors are doing the writers a favor by imposing limits; 350 words is a good starting point.
Limit frequency of authors: Individuals should be limited to one letter per month, except in the case of rebuttals (see next item).
Be ready for rebuttals: Exchanges among writers should be limited to two letters from each individual on a particular subject – in other words, a letter and a rebuttal, plus a counter-rebuttal from each writer. After that, the readers can carry on their conversation privately. Writers will complain that the other person “had the last word,” but that always will be the case – no matter how long an exchange continues.
Give priority to local opinions: In general, letters should be accepted from local readers only. An exception might be a letter on a local topic from a recognized expert who lives outside the area.
Reject mass-produced letters: The churn of orchestrated campaigns is increasing, and not only during election season. Mass-produced letters – even if submitted by a local resident – should be rejected.
Verify letters: All letters should be verified prior to publication, preferably by a phone call. Editors should require name, full address and telephone number on all submissions.
Reject thank-you letters: Publication ofÂ “thank yous” dilutes the letters column. There are exceptions, of course, such as in the stranded out-of-town motorist who wants to pass along appreciation for the after-hours assistance by a local service station. In most instances, however, “thank you” letters are a shortcut for organizations that seek to save the time and expense of writing a personal note to individuals who contributed to the success of an event.
Letters are no substitute for news stories: Only in rare circumstances should editors accept letters promoting an event or program. Once you say “yes” to one, it’s nearly impossible to say “no” to another.
Be conscious of display: Be sensitive to the prominence letters receive – how they are displayed – especially those that present opposing views on the same issue.
Edit aggressively: Make readers aware that letters are edited aggressively, especially those that repeat themes.
Stick to public issues: Letters should be restricted to public issues or issues that come before public bodies. Compliments and/or criticism of private organizations and businesses are not regular subjects for letters.
Identify authors where appropriate: Letters should carry a note identifying the writer if it’s germane to the letter. For example, a writer might be identified as a nuclear engineer if the letter addresses nuclear energy.
Newspapers have the opportunity to weigh in on issues. Vibrant editorials will prompt a healthy exchange of opinions – if editors do not overstep their bounds. In other words, resist the temptation to add a postscript to letters. Editor’s notes might be appropriate to correct an error in fact or a grossly overstated accusation, but they should not be tacked on to defend or restate the newspaper’s position.
Take the instance when an editor went so far as to discredit a writer in an editorial the same day the letter appeared. The display of one-upmanship was duly noted by another reader in a follow-up letter, landing an appropriate blow to the newspaper’s mission of fair play.
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. He is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” He can be contacted at www.pumarlo.com.