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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Our View

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Not too opinionated

A reader once complained, with no sense of irony, that the letters to the editor are too opinionated.

To complain that letters are too opinionated is akin to complaining that news stories are too factual.

Yet it does raise an important question: should we publish only letters that are noncontroversial -- that is, light on opinion? It would certainly save editors a lot of headaches.

But the other, entirely predictable result of such a policy would be that no one would read the letters anymore. Readers read letters because they are controversial. That's sort of the point.

Despite the headaches, editors always wish they had more letters. Letters attract readers. In fact, readership of letters is higher than just about every other item in the paper.

This was borne out in an extensive (though unscientific) reader poll we took a few years ago. According to the poll, letters the editor were read by a whopping 96 percent of the 175 readers who responded to the poll.

Letters edged editorials (95 percent) and obituaries (90 percent) and easily outpolled everything else in the paper except front page stories. Readership of regular columns ranged from 49 percent to 88 percent. A sampling of other features: calendar of events (65 percent), comics (57 percent), weather (54 percent), crossword puzzle (48 percent), TV listings (20 percent).

We provided space for poll respondents to write suggestions, which helped us adjust our letters policy. For instance, 60 percent of respondents thought there were too few letters to the editor, compared to only 11 percent who thought there were too many. At the same time many respondents thought the letters were often too long, while not a single respondent thought the letters were too short.

Wrote one: "Some people tend to ramble on -- please edit them more." And another: "Can't some that don't make sense be edited? Or left out?"

We already had a word limit but enforced it only on rare occasions when we couldn't get all the letters to fit. We now enforce it more strictly -- but still not absolutely.

Readers complained about the writers whose letters appear frequently, a couple suggesting that writers be limited to a single letter each month. That was actually the policy already, but we have since restricted it even further; we don't publish letters from the same writer on the same subject in back-to-back letters, even if they are a month apart.

At one time a reader in Cherokee Village wrote at least one letter a week, sometimes two or three, despite the fact that we published only one a month. He never complained and actually thanked us for the letters we did publish. We have always suspected he wrote for therapeutic purposes more than to get published.

While we encourage readers to use the opinion page to voice their opinions, we do require that they abide by certain policies, which are usually listed at the bottom of the page. That policy, with comments, follows:

* Preference is given to original letters not previously published.

We won't publish letters we recognize as produced by public advocacy groups but signed by local residents. Nor will we publish letters -- which often appear at election time -- that appear to be part of an organized letter writing campaign.

* We reserve the right to edit all letters.

We are careful never to alter a writer's intent, but we do sometimes correct spelling, punctuation and style errors. We might also cut portions that are repetitious or on topics not germane to the subject of the letter.

* We refuse publication of letters which contain profanity, vulgarity, libelous statements or unsubstantiated accusations.

This is the issue that causes editors the most headaches; someone who has a personal grudge against another and wants to use the newspaper to exact revenge is often so consumed with anger he cannot listen to reason. We have been cussed out many times for refusing to publish letters that could land both the letter writers and us in jail for criminal libel -- even though the writers were "willing to vouch for every word" of their rants. Our policy is not to publish any letter critical of any specific private person or entity -- unless it is critical of us, in which case we do publish it. We do publish letters critical of public figures and public agencies.

* Writers should limit submissions to no more than once a month.

But if they submit more, it gives us a choice of which one to pitch.

* Letters should not exceed 300 words.

They often do, and we make no apologies for slashing them. However, on that rare occasion when we deem a writer particularly articulate or insightful, we bend the rule. But be forewarned, writers who try too hard to be articulate or insightful tend to be merely wordy and pretentious.

* Letters must include the name and phone number of the writer for verification.

Anonymous letter writers are the most reckless in their accusations against others, since they don't have to take responsibility for what they write. Still, we would break the rule for a writer we thought was making an important statement but who could be endangered or needlessly embarrassed by publishing his or her name. We have yet to see a letter that qualified. As for verification, we don't promise to confirm authorship of every letter, but we do attempt to verify authorship of every letter with controversial content.

* Letters must be typed or printed legibly.

If it's not important enough for you to make your point clearly, why should it be important enough to us to decipher it?

Newspapers have a rich tradition of facilitating public debate on issues of importance in communities across the country through the letters to the editor section. Responsible editors try to provide objective leadership on issues through editorials, but honest editors also recognize there are many viewpoints on any issue, and the public good is served by airing those viewpoints even when -- perhaps especially when -- those viewpoints are contrary to the editorials.