Author may be the most revealing part of a letter

November 4, 2013

Jim Pumarlo
Everyday Ethics 

A reader complained about a published letter that supported teachers in their contract dispute: Did the editor know the writer was the spouse of a teacher? Why wasn’t that noted because the writer has a self-interest in the outcome of negotiations?

Many editors have likely fielded similar questions at one time or another.

The caller correctly pointed out that our newspaper, on occasion, identified letter-writers with a tagline. Why we didn’t do so in this case is a good question, and we took the opportunity to communicate our policy to all readers. It’s a great example of when editors should take the initiative to explain the ins and outs of newspaper operations to their readers—their customers.

It’s common practice—or should be—for newspapers to indicate the “who” of “what” of writers for a couple of reasons:

No. 1, the writers have a clear stake in the issue. Take the example of a local antique dealer who expresses concern over a proposed city law that would have required pawnshops and antique dealers to keep inventory of merchandise.

No. 2, the writers may have specific knowledge or credentials that underscore their understanding of an issue. An example is a nuclear physicist who writes about the storage of radioactive spent fuel at the local nuclear power plant.

In both instances, the identification gives readers a broader understanding and appreciation of the writers’ perspectives. In most cases, the writers themselves ask that the descriptive information be included.

So where should editors draw the line? Why specifically didn’t we identify the teacher’s spouse who weighed in on contract negotiations?

We believed it was appropriate to identify writers in the debate if they were school district employees. But we hesitated to identify family members. Think of the challenges in doing so.

First, it’s impractical to think editors know the names of all employees and their spouses. Furthermore, who is it appropriate to identify—spouses, parents, children? And should their opinions somehow be “tainted” by identifying a relationship?

This was not the first time a family member had written on an issue close to home. I recall when the parent of a city council candidate wrote a letter of endorsement. We did not identify the relationship.

Having said all that, editors—and readers—should pay attention to the authors of letters, especially during political campaigns and other divisive issues such as teachers’ contract negotiations. It’s little surprise that teachers in our community were encouraging people to write in support of their position. In similar vein, administration and school board members who stood on the opposite side of contract talks encouraged their friends to advance their arguments.

For the most part, individuals on both sides who had a vested interest in the outcome of the dispute readily identified themselves in letters. At the same time, we explained to readers that the school district had about 450 employees, and approximately 50 percent of those were teachers.

A lively discussion of issues is a keystone to a vibrant community, and it’s a common perception among many readers that the “letters column” is their territory. They feel a particular ownership to the rules that govern the page. Editors should welcome reader participation, but there are occasions when you have to step in. It behooves editors and readers to not only analyze the arguments presented in letters, but also to pay attention to the writers. In many cases, the messenger may be more important than the message. © Jim Pumarlo 2013

 

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.

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