Be careful not to squelch reader exchange
July 8, 2014
By Jim Pumarlo
We’ve all received letters that give us pause as to whether they should ever see the light of day on our editorial pages. In the editor’s mind, there are numerous reasons to dismiss the letter out of hand.
Take your pick: The writer’s a crackpot. The language is vicious. Statements presented as facts are half-truths. The subject has been thoroughly debated. The exchange is more appropriately handled privately. The dispute doesn’t rise to the level of a public forum. The writer is a frequent contributor to the page and has had enough say on the subject.
If you decide to publish the letter, it’s only after taking one or more precautions. We’re all familiar with these, too: Demand attribution for every asserted fact. Give the “accused” a preview of the letter and an opportunity to present a rebuttal in the same edition as the letter from the “accuser.” Tack on an editor’s note. Or scrap the letter altogether and pursue a news story so you can decide which quotes and statements to use.
Don’t get me wrong. Editors certainly have a responsibility to themselves and their readers to ride herd on their editorial pages. But I urge caution. Letters are the lifeblood of an editorial page; a lively reader exchange is at the foundation of a vibrant community newspaper. If editors overuse the “delete” button, or place too many restrictions on letters, you may well dampen the flow of community voices in your newspaper.
Resist these temptations
Insist on verification: It’s necessary to fact-check letters to the extent that you are able. Some information is easy to track down. But, remember, writing a letter is like attorneys arguing a case in court. Everyone may agree on the same set of facts, but lawyers selectively use those facts that support their arguments. Omitting one fact can be just as misleading as presenting a falsehood. You’ll never have enough time to verify each statement in every letter.
Share the letter: Sharing a letter in advance with the aggrieved, and allowing a response to the original letter in the same edition, should be done only in extreme circumstances. Implement this practice once, and you’ve set a precedent. You’ll almost certainly be challenged by others who believe they should have had a similar opportunity. One exception that comes to mind is when 11th-hour charges are leveled during an election campaign.
Pursue a news story: An exchange in the letters column may well prompt pursuing a news story. By all means, assign a reporter—after the letters have been published. Don’t pre-empt what the writers have to say—don’t sanitize what you may consider offending language, or selectively edit what you consider to be the facts—by taking the keyboard out of their hands.
Protect public figures: We all may cringe at some of the strong criticism leveled at public figures, but that’s the risk they assume when assuming office. It’s a good chance that some of these same public officials have used their bully pulpit to unleash a tongue-lashing on others, even private citizens. Remember, we often use harsh language in our editorials.
Editor’s note: Tacking a P.S. on letters should be used sparingly and only as a last resort. From the writer’s perspective, editor’s notes are just an example of the newspaper having the “last word” and diminishing the impact of the letter. Do so, and it’s a good bet the authors will be hesitant to submit another letter. They will be unafraid to express that sentiment to friends.
Am I endorsing a freewheeling editorial page? Absolutely.
Am I endorsing a commentary that is cruel and borders on libel? Absolutely not.
Editors should take great pains to promote a civil and respectful exchange of opinions. At the same time, you don’t want to unnecessarily squelch reader comments. Be careful that you don’t let your personal impressions of, or associations with, the author and/or the subject to interfere with the exchange for fear of reader reaction.
The biggest surprise may be the expectations that a particular letter will generate an immediate and rather venomous response, and a black eye for the newspaper. Don’t underestimate your readers. They may well take the letter for what it is—a personal vendetta or passion on an issue.
If a rather nasty dialogue develops and takes on a life of its own, you always have the ability to tone down the exchange or stop it altogether. Then write about it in a column explaining to readers the hows and whys behind your decisions. © Jim Pumarlo 2014
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.