Letters should promote the exchange of ideas
The Inlander/November 2008
Here’s one 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 conversations privately. Writers will complain that the other person “had the last word,” but that always will be the case.
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.
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 of “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 special 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.
Resist the temptation to add a postscript to letters. Editors’ notes might be appropriate to correct an error in fact or a statement that grossly mischaracterizes a position. But they should not be tacked on to defend or restate the newspaper’s position.