Letters to the Editor Protocol?
March 24, 2008 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Is there a journalistic protocol that newspapers adhere to when printing letters to the editor? The small town newspaper from where I grew up typically just posts a random assortment of letters from old codgers. However, in the last 3 years or so it has been posting, on an almost weekly basis, letters written by a local man who founded a very prominent White Nationalist organization, and who at one time was one of the most prominent neo-Nazis in America.

Most of these gentleman's letters rail against the government in general; occasionally however he will spew a bit of venom at illegal immigrants and African Americans. A couple of months ago he called Barack Obama's Kenyan father an animal. The letters include nothing but the content of the letter and the man's name. There have been a couple of times when members of the community have written in to "expose" this man, and their letters are printed as well. My question though is this: does this newspaper have an obligation to identify this man when he writes in? Some sort of "editor's note" that accompanies each letter? Is providing this person with free editorial space some sort of tacit approval?

I realize that printing letters to the editor is not illegal - we've got a first amendment for that kind of stuff. But I am wondering how letters are sorted through and printed on a more general level - obviously not all letters are printed (most have policies regarding limit of letters per week or month), and if a prominent or unseemly person were to write in, I feel as though typically that is addressed through an editor's note. Thanks for any clarifications or insights you may have.
posted by billysumday to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've worked at a couple of local papers, and the process for choosing letters to the editor varies widely. At a small town weekly, they had to struggle to fill the space every week, so they basically printed whatever letters they received, as long as they weren't explicitly racist, obscene or insane. But a much larger daily newspaper spent a great deal of time and energy picking through the letters, looking for quality writing, interesting viewpoints, and a variety of opinions.

In your case, I'd guess that the racist old crank is the only guy writing letters, and the editorial board needs the content, so they run his stuff out of necessity. Then the other readers write in to complain about it, which helps fill the space for another week. It's a vicious cycle, but the newspaper's board probably only cares that they've got some content, and that there's a bit of controversy keeping readers interested.

I don't think the newspaper should identify the man when he writes in --anything marking him as "that crazy guy" would be inappropriate. If his screeds are bad enough that he needs a disclaimer, they simply should not print them.

The First Amendment guarantees everyone a right to speak, and keeps the government from silencing them. But it by no means requires a business like a newspaper to print anything. It's nice to think that everybody has an equal chance to be heard, but let's be real -- some people deserve to be ignored.
posted by eduke at 12:42 PM on March 24, 2008

Most local/community newspapers get very, very few letters to the editor - the smaller the community, the fewer the letters. "A random assortment of letters from old codgers" often describes the bulk of the submissions.

My question though is this: does this newspaper have an obligation to identify this man when he writes in? Some sort of "editor's note" that accompanies each letter?

There's not exactly an obligation, if what you mean is a legal obligation, nor is there a professional obligation, as no professional organization for newspapers has the power to dictate standards for letter publication or to punish noncompliant papers. Newspapers generally do operate within an ethical structure and do see themselves as having ethical obligations, though. Most newspapers are operating under an active "statement of ethics" or "code of ethics" which may or may not touch on letters to the editor. If you want to start exploring the issue with your local paper, you might call the managing editor and ask to see the statement or at least have a conversation about editorial policy on letters.

Is providing this person with free editorial space some sort of tacit approval?

Absolutely not. Letters to the editor are usually run on the op-ed page. Op-Ed means "opposite the editorial page." The editorial page is, in the usual theory, the one place in the general-news section of the paper where the newspaper's editors and columnists speak in their own individual voices rather than in the objective journalistic voice. Opposite the editorials go things in individual voices that are not those of people employed at the paper. There is considered to be a lot of latitude on the op-ed page, and opinions on the op-ed are definitely not meant to be a reflection of the newspaper's editorial stances on matters of opinion. You may see op-ed opinion pieces that diametrically oppose the editorial stance of the paper itself. There is a sense of obligation to publish a wide range of opinion letters in an attempt to reflect the scope of community responses to the paper's content. Papers make a lot of different choices about what to publish in the "letters' column. Sometimes they publish everything they get (including thinly disguised press releases, rants, and stumping letters for politicians), while at other times they publish carefully selected letters representing the range and percentage of opinion on a story.

So this all depends on your local paper's editorial policy with regard to letters to the editor. It could be argued that they should identify the author; but it is also a public forum and, as long as the writer is not using the letters to commit fraud or slander, there's nothing illegal about not identifying him. I could write letters to my local paper and see after my name "The author is a registered Democrat, member of Save Our Groundwater, and member of the YMCA" but I'm not sure whether any of that is germane to my expression of opinion. Lawyers write in about law issues, teachers write in about education issues, and it doesn't surprise me that white supremacists write in about race issues. It also doesn't sound like the paper is trying to "sneak" him in, since others have written with more identifying information.

I'd try calling the managing editor's desk and see what s/he says.
posted by Miko at 12:52 PM on March 24, 2008

occasionally however he will spew a bit of venom at illegal immigrants and African Americans.
This is unacceptable in letterst to the editor at most newspapers. Also, most papers have some kind of limit, like no more than one letter per month per writer. Running this guy's rants week after week is not good policy for the paper, and that might be the gist of any discussion/suggestions to the ME. But it's their paper, they can do what they want.
posted by beagle at 1:03 PM on March 24, 2008

I bet it probably varies from paper to paper, and printing people opposed to him is their way of providing an opposite opinion.

I feel your pain, though. In a city I lived in Michigan, the day after 9/11--the very day after--they ran a nearly page long letter that said that the homosexuals, ACLU, and the atheists and liberals had brought the attacks down on America. Pretty awful stuff.
posted by Anonymous at 1:15 PM on March 24, 2008

This is unacceptable in letterst to the editor at most newspapers.

I don't know; I think it's fairly common except in major markets, where the overall quality and abundance of letters is likely to be better. There was a letter you could say "spewed venom" at illegal immigrants in my local paper last week; another one called the homeless a number of names including "bums" and "criminals" and suggested they be deported to a work ranch somewhere to the West.

the day after 9/11--the very day after-

In their defense, the page had probably already been composed and replacing it on the day of 9/11 probably took a distant back seat to reporting the breaking news.
posted by Miko at 1:21 PM on March 24, 2008

Generally, most newspapers require the letter-writer to provide contact information, including name, phone number, and address. They generally e-mail or call to verify that you really wrote the letter. They reserve the right to edit for length, clarity, and grammar. Google Letters to the Editor policy for examples.

They are under no obligation to print all the letters that they receive. It's a bit odd, editorial-policy-wise, to be publishing this fellow's rants every week. Most papers aim to reflect the community and provide a variety of viewpoints via the letters selected for publication.

If he's not writing in his official capacity as Senior Small-Town Racist, it's probably not be the newspaper's policy to run his letter with an editorial note.

Contact the Managing Editor and express your concerns. Also write a letter to the editor questioning the editorial policy. In your letter, you may want to urge other people to write letters on subjects dear to them so that the paper has something to print besides Nazi-guy.
posted by desuetude at 1:41 PM on March 24, 2008

Contentious letters are gold for newspapers large and small; they're the bonsai version of opinionated columnists that half of the readership loves to hate. All sorts of papers are perfectly happy to run letters from racists and fascists and Stalinists and Scientologists; it gets other people writing in, it boosts readership (as long as you print the rebuttal letters as well to keep the flame war going...), and because you're not paying the correspondents, you can always hide behind the sanctimonious shield of just "reporting the community's concerns".

Note that many letters pages also, at least sometimes, print letters that're completely made up. This is especially likely to happen in small papers and magazines that can't find enough real letters that're even remotely publishable; just type up something interesting yourself and chuck it in there. That's hardly ethical journalism, but it's not an enormous sin either, provided the editorial team aren't engaging in blatant sock-puppetry. Fake letters that hotly defend the Editor's wisdom against other correspondents who dare to question him, unacceptable; fake letters about how the daffodils seem to be coming in early this year, OK.

(The same applies to classifed ads. Small papers keep a spike file of funny classified ads to use to plug holes here and there, because there are only so many copies of the "call this number to place your ad!" meta-ad you can run before you start sounding a wee bit desperate. So if you see something hilarious in the small ads, someone may actually have paid to put it there, but it's more likely that it's an in-house gap filler.)
posted by dansdata at 1:44 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Meh. I was going to write what dansdata just wrote- Controversy boosts readership. Every aspect of the newspaper's content is there for the very same reason- to get people to read the paper so they can sell advertising.
posted by Doohickie at 1:54 PM on March 24, 2008

I have a friend who used to be the editor of a small daily. Concerning these types of letters to the editor, he used to say "When an idiot spouts off like this, the best way to let as many people know that he is an idiot , is to let them read the unedited rantings"

I do believe, however, that they had a policy (which was printed on the page everyday) that they would only accept submissions that were accompanied by the authors name, which was also printed along with the letter.
posted by sandra_s at 1:57 PM on March 24, 2008

Op-Ed means "opposite the editorial page."

Huh. I always assumed it was short for "opinions of the editor" or some such, even though they're not written by the editor. Well, you learn something new every day.
posted by roombythelake at 2:01 PM on March 24, 2008

I was given the job of choosing letters to print when I was an intern at Wired.com. I wasn't given any sort of official policy on which letters to print. I tended to choose either letters that made a coherent point, whether it was a point with which I agreed or not, and letters that were so far out they were amusing.

I didn't make any attempt to identify letter-writers beyond the name and e-mail address they gave us, and I didn't feel we had any responsibility to refute any letters, or take pains to point out that the opinions expressed were not those of the editors (or intern). I did, however, decide not to print a few letters that I thought were potentially libelous, or that were, to me, transparently false. On the other hand, I didn't go out of my way to check the facts of the letters we got.

All in all, I figured that readers knew that it was just a collection of letters people sent, and that printing a letter didn't imply an endorsement. No editor ever told me this explicitly, but they never had a problem with the letters I picked.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 2:11 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Often, newspapers will print a short title below the author's name, describing the relation of the author to the subject. For instance, if the CEO of Zach's Widget Corp writes a letter to the editor to challenge statements made about his company in a recent article, the paper may print "The writer is President and CEO of Zach's Widget Corp" below my name. In much the same vain, what your paper _could_ do (not that there's any real obligation to do so) in the situation you describe is print something of the sort of "The author is a founder of The Evil Club, an organization widely considered to be a white nationalist group." This identifies the author's role in connection with the organization he founded, where the beliefs expressed in the letter are closely related to that of the organization, without actually placing a large "CRACKPOT" label directly above the letter.
posted by zachlipton at 2:15 PM on March 24, 2008

Others have made the point that small-town newspapers are so desperate to fill the space assigned to letters that they can't afford to be choosy. This jibes with my own experience working on a small-town paper, where the letters section is usually filled, even today, by a few regulars who don't even live in the paper's coverage area. Unless there's a local controversy that provokes letters, the regular wingnuts provide the content.

I've often imagined that there are a few people who, cognizant of this fact, spend their lives writing toxic letters to the editor and sending them to every newspaper in the country. It would explain why, for example, my former newspaper here in rural western Quebec would regularly print letters from a correspondent in the Niagara Falls area.
posted by mcwetboy at 2:36 PM on March 24, 2008

The most tabloidish of the major daily papers 'round these parts (Toronto) tends to insert short, smarmy and/or snarky remarks immediately following letters to the editor. These generally echo the writer's sentiment, but are occasionally meant to mock or undermine it. Here is a current example online. This probably does more to discredit the publication itself than the letter writers.
posted by onshi at 2:44 PM on March 24, 2008

Best answer: As others have said, policies on choosing letters to the editor vary widely among different papers and editors, but the most important thing to understand here is that there are two very different supply sides when it comes to letters to the editor.

Big, major-market dailies tend to have a surplus of letters -- the Times and the Journal have the luxury of choosing the most excellent, most interesting, or most diverse letters to print.

Smaller papers, like the one you describe, aren't nearly as lucky. Even at the fairly large college daily where I'm ops editor (ostensibly the one to whom all those letters are addressed, and therefore in charge of sifting through 'em), there are sporadic droughts and even days where nobody writes in at all. I've found that readers usually way overestimate the number of letters we get, assuming that letters are constantly flooding in, and I'm some sort of Great Gatekeeper. Not so; I usually run whatever I've got.

Shortages significantly change the selection calculus. If things are slow, I have to be careful about rationing letters, so we have a few to print each day. When we've just published a controversial opinion column or editorial and there's a surplus, I get to select the best ones based on a variety of criteria.

As I see it, the letters section is a public forum, and a self-regulating one at that. Everyone should have access to it, as long as their opinions are attributed by name, and I try to stay as hands-off as possible. If your local letter-spammer really is a racist jerk, it's your job to write a cogent response and call him out for it. But I don't -- and shouldn't -- have any obligation to write an editor's note. Since it's a public forum, the letters section ought to be the part of the paper farthest removed from editorial control, and inserting asides cheapens that distinction. Yes, it's annoying to read stupid stuff in print, but I have a lot of faith in readers' ability to recognize an ignorant crackpot when they see one, especially since the letter is verified and attributed.

As a public forum, I feel an ethical obligation to print as many letters as possible as accurately as possible, and that's usually not difficult. But when there are just too many to handle, other priorities kick in. Is the writer a member of the community my paper serves or just a random crackpot? Is the letter in response to an article my paper published or an unrelated one-off? Have hundreds of people written expressing the same opinion (this tends to happen with gun nuts after every school shooting), or is it something novel? Did they follow our printed guidelines on length and refraining from personal attacks?

Of course, every editor at every newspaper has a slightly different way of thinking about this question. The best way to answer your question is probably to write a letter to your local editor and ask how he thinks about it. I can all but guarantee he'll be happy to get it.
posted by ecmendenhall at 3:18 PM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

My local paper in a slightly larger area has a pretty good letters policy. Nobody gets printed more than once a month, for example (they don't print your address, but you must provide one; anonymous letters are not allowed). They do some inconsistent identification of affiliation (say, "the author is a member of the Dairy Products Board") so as to indicate they're paying attention. They generally don't print letters that are attacks on a person or overtly offensive, and they do tend to focus primarily on letters that have local import, so you can't comment on the foreign policy of Dubai.

In your case I might write a thoughtful, hand-wringing, "troubled" letter suggesting that the continued soapboxing of this bigot is detracting from the paper's reputation. I wouldn't give it a strong chance of making a difference, though.
posted by dhartung at 8:08 PM on March 24, 2008

The weekly newspaper where I work demands that each letter-writer provides his/her name, address, phone number or the letter won't get printed. We don't print the person's address or phone number, just the town.

We will not print attacks on people or local organizations, nor will we print raves over a political candidate (either local or national). We won't print letters from current political candidates that have a "I'm the better guy" flavor; if a candidate wants to praise the Lions Club for its eyeglasses drive (provided he/she's not an officer or member), we'd probably print that letter.

We prefer not to print letters from out-of-county or outside our circulation area. If, however, the writer is a former resident or has a link to our area and is writing about an issue of local/area concern, we'll probably print it. If the writer is affiliated with a group, club, etc. and that fact is relevant to the letter, we'll mention that after the writer's name (Joe Brilliant, Lions Club Tail-Twister, Texasville).

We run lots of letters of "thanks" -- folks thanking the town for supporting the basketball team, folks thanking fellow residents for their support and prayers during a recent illness or a death in the family, etc. We even run letters from moms and dads "to" their kid in Iraq or the boy who just joined the military. And even though those letters can be maudlin or kinda cheesy, they're sweet and the families appreciate it.

Weeklies don't have the luxury of tons of letters to choose from, but weeklies CAN still be choosy.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 8:09 PM on March 29, 2008

Op-Ed means "opposite the editorial page."

Huh. I always assumed it was short for "opinions of the editor" or some such, even though they're not written by the editor. Well, you learn something new every day.

I always thought it was "Opinions and Editorials", the difference being the latter are written "by the board", i.e., printed without attribution on behalf of the paper as a whole, whereas the former are the signed opinions of individual persons (or, in rare cases, of groups of individuals), some of whom may be paid to express that opinion....
posted by FlyingMonkey at 2:44 PM on April 8, 2008

"Opinions & Editorials" is a neat false etymology, but the derivation is "opposite the editorials."
posted by Miko at 3:17 PM on April 8, 2008

Wikipedia: An op-ed, abbreviated from opposite editorial due to the tradition of newspapers placing such materials on the page opposite the editorial page, is similar in form and content to an editorial, but represents the opinion of an individual writer, who is sometimes but not always affiliated with the publication. Though these two terms are sometimes confused, they are quite distinct.
posted by Miko at 3:19 PM on April 8, 2008

A quibble with Miko and Wikipedia: that "tradition" is not very old; you won't find "op-ed" pages in newspapers before the 1950s. The New York Times coined the term when it launched its Op-Ed page. According to The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family behind The New York Times, by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones (1999), the idea was first hatched (by Scotty Reston) in 1943; it was not actually launched until the fall of 1970. (Reference.) Meanwhile, The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., a small paper which at that time had a world-class journalistic reputation (reference), had been running a collection of opinion columns on the page opposite its editorial page since sometime in the 1950s, and possibly other newspapers did, but they didn't call it "op-ed".
posted by beagle at 7:14 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Definitely veering off into newspaper geekdom, here. But this article tracing the history of waves of popularity in the op-ed idea, is also interesting::
The Wall Street Journal, in a letter to the author, claims an op-ed tradition that goes back more than 100 years."A note from Baltimore op-ed writer Carl Pohlner says that he chanced upon such a page published in the now defunct Baltimore News-Post as long ago as 1946, and it included free-lance whimsical essays of the type that Pohlner writes.ll Kenneth Rystrom suggests the first op-ed page "may have been produced by the New York World in the late 1920s and early 1930s ... heavily oriented toward the arts and culture."'2 Rystrom notes that a book on newspaper editing published in 1942 "credited the Louisville Courier-Journal's editorial page and 'page opposite editorial' or 'oped' page with setting one of the outstanding examples in design for editorial pages."
The NYT repeatedly touts itself as offering the "first op-ed page," created by George Polk, in 1970. That would really have to be just another reincarnation of an idea that obviously had existed much earlier.

This page has 1926 and 1931 citations mentioning the "op-ed page" of the New York World.

A 1971 Time article mentions that the NYT's "new" op-ed page had precedents in the 1920s.
posted by Miko at 8:04 AM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

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