Monday, September 18, 2006

Should Others Read Letters to Editor Before Publication?

Here are the facts of a recent event that took place at a weekly newspaper in Missouri. These facts were presented as a “case study” to 40 community journalists from different areas of the United States. These journalists were asked to e-mail their responses to the discussion questions and eight of the responses are being shared here.


A taxpayer submits a letter to a weekly newspaper. The letter is critical of the financial decisions being made by the school district's board and administration. The letter is not an individual attack (no names are mentioned) but it does question wisdom of the school district's decisions.

The letter misses the deadline for the weekly publication (apparently) by just a few hours. A day or two later, the newspaper's editor calls the school board president, "to check the facts." That day, the board president visits the newspaper office to read the letter one week in advance of it being published. He is allowed to do so and the president may have even received a copy of the letter to take with him (different versions of the story exist on this point).

In the coming days, the board president works at "rallying the troops" to respond to the letter (which has not yet been published). The letter and its writer are both discussed at a board meeting and a community basketball game where the board president asks citizens to write letters in response to the "vicious attack," which has not even been published yet.

The school superintendent even writes his own response (and submits it the same day the weekly newspaper comes out). That letter takes a personal approach and actually begins as an attack on the writer: "John Doe just doesn't get it." Subsequent letters follow from the board president and teachers, all taking personal aim at the writer of the letter. Interestingly, the editor never contacts the person being attacked in those letters to verify any facts or statements being made before those letters are published.

Here are the primarily questions this case study raises:

1. What are the ethics involved with an editor contacting a governing board (and/or its leader) in advance of the publication of a letter to the editor?

2. What are the ethics involved with letting someone actually read (and perhaps even have a copy of) a letter in advance of publication?

3. What are the ethics involved with elected officials responding to letters to the editor by attacking the writer instead of the issues?

4. Do you have any advice for either the editor of the newspaper, or the writer of the letter?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Reporting 101, one of the first things student reporters learn is not to give prior review, no matter who the person is asking for it. As journalists, our loyalty belongs to the audiences who have given us their trust. And printing personal attacks is just opening up a Pandora's box. I can hear the legal departments groaning from here. --
Beth Slusser, Student Publications advisor, Fairmont State College, Fairmont, WV.

5:11 PM, September 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We never give a preview of a letter to a source because it just creates problems. I may check facts before printing if there is a question. We also ensure that the responses focus on the issues raised. We call the responder and go over the issues with the responder so he or she understands where we are coming from and also feels that they have been treated fairly. Our newspaper took a fight to the United States Supreme Court to protect the rights of letter writers under the New York State Shield Law. The commitment we have to those who place trust in us by writing us a letter is paramount. We do all we can to live up to that trust, especially when the writer is going up against a major force or government.

Carolyn James, editor, Massapequa Post, Amityville Record, Babylon Beacon newspapers, Long Island, New York

5:12 PM, September 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see no problem with the editor calling the superintendent to ask about facts in the letter. Letters, like other types of tips from readers can often be the impetus for independent reporting and news stories. I am less comfortable with sharing the letter before publication. I'm not sure it's an ethical issue but I do think it discourages people from writing letters critical of public officials. It is best to put both parties on an equal footing and allow them to have a dialogue in the letters column. When the letter writer voluntarily entered the public debate by sending his letter, he made himself fair game for criticism, including attacks on his intelligence, motives and reputation. If the superintendent used a racial or ethnic stereotype in response to the writer's criticism of a school budget, he's clearly out of bounds. If he says John Doe couldn't pass freshman Algebra, that's less clear. If you're undecided, I'd err on the side of inclusion. Don't forget the option of editing out the gratuitous nastiness and leaving the substance.
Cliff Richner, Publisher, Herald Community Newspapers, Lawrence, NY

5:13 PM, September 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was editor and publisher, I would not have contacted anyone to alert them that a letter was coming. Citizens in our society have a right to express their viewpoints about the actions and decisions of their elected and appointed officials. After all, it is the taxpayers' money and the taxpayers' schools they are administrating. One of the responsibilities of the press is to be a public forum for ideas, both popular and unpopular. Printing letters to the editor is part of the public forum process. Should the letter contain new facts, I would check out the facts as the basis for a news story. If it required contacting an official involved, I would not tell the person or persons that a letter was coming. The information sought would be for the news story, not for rebuttal to the letter or as a way to inform the official or officials about the letter. An editor should not favor elected or appointed officials. One of the functions of the press is to be a watchdog on government. It's difficult to do that and play favorites with government officials. An editor should be as diligent about checking the facts presented in a letter whether it is from officials or a citizen. Actually, I think there is a greater responsibility to check information from a government official. That is part of being a watchdog and watching out for the citizenry. A letter writer should keep on writing. It is a citizen's right and responsibility to question the decisions and actions of those elected and appointed to contact public business.

Harry Hix, Engleman/Livermore Professor of Community Journalism, University of Oklahoma

5:14 PM, September 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would not share a letter prior to publication. We do not discuss letters outside of our office. Once published, it becomes public. Advance reading of letters is not the intent of a letters to the editor page. The paper is the forum. The writer knows the letter is for publication, but I'm sure they don't anticipate the paper will be spreading it around before publication. What are the ethics involved with elected officials responding to letters to the editor by attacking the writer instead of the issues? Anyone, including elected officials, can respond to a letter to the editor. I find many people don't want to stick to the issues. A lot of people want to criticize the person who wrote the letter. It's up to the editor to keep the conversation civil.

Stacy S. Chastain, Associate Publisher, The News Observer, Blue Ridge, Ga.

5:15 PM, September 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems to me, a lot of this has to do with the size of the town. In a smaller town, an editor might approach the superintendent about a letter to give him a heads up. But I don't think the superintendent ought to actually see the letter and the response should not come out at the same time as the letter. The procedure I'd use is this: 1) Contact the letter writer to make sure he wrote it. 2) You may or may not want to contact the school officials, but if you want to check facts, this may be the easiest way to do it. 3) I would not let the school read the letter. I would also not let anyone respond to a letter that had not yet been printed. And, I would not allow an attack on the writer. It sounds like the editor is a little too cozy with the school people. This kind of thing can really hurt the credibility of the newspaper in the community, unless the writer is some well-known nut. And if that's the case, then the readers ought to recognize it when they see the letter with his name on it. If the writer is a respected citizen and the paper allows the school to jump on him -- a citizen and taxpayer -- it could lead to lots of bad feelings for the school and the newspaper.

Jim Sterling, professor of community journalism, University of Missouri School of Journalism, Columbia, Mo., and former publisher of three weekly newspapers.

5:17 PM, September 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Letting someone in government read the letter in advance of publication is flat out unethical. There is no reason to give a public board or public leader a heads-up on a negative letter. If they hold public office, attacks go with the job. Frankly, it sounds to me like the editor is courting those in power in the community, the antithesis of what the editor of a good community newspaper should be doing. An official making an attack on the writer instead of the issues isn’t unethical. It just says to me they couldn't attack the letter on its substance. Sounds like the letter writer did just what a good citizen should do -- raise issues about the policies and financial decisions of a governing board. The editor could borrow a little of this critical judgment, rather than trying to curry favor by blunting a negative letter.

Vicki Simons, Former editor, The Independent of Columbia County (NY), a twice weekly community newspaper and former director of The Center for Community Journalism

5:18 PM, September 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While we have not specifically documented a ‘no prior look’ policy at our newspaper, it is understood by our staff that such an action would be a breach of trust. Our letter-to-the-editor writers have the expectation that their letter will be shared, with the public, in the venue of their choice -- the editorial page. Occasionally we will check facts, if we feel that there might be libel or ethical issues involved. That fact checking process can include a conversation with the letter writer but we do not contact the subject of the letter. This process, although time consuming, can yield a stronger, more focused letter from the writer.

Mary Beth Jones, Tioga County Courier, Owego, New York

5:18 PM, September 18, 2006  
Blogger Darin said...

I live in a small town and occasionally write for the newspaper; I'm not an editor but one day will be. :) I have a couple of problems with this one. Should the editor let the pubic official know about the letter...yes, I don't see a problem with that. Should the facts be confirmed ? Yes, for the reasons stated above. Should the letter be sent a week before the way! I don't see a problem with a heads up and a response...Am I unethical?

3:19 AM, September 21, 2006  
Blogger Gary Sosniecki said...

I think the above comments are right 99 percent of the time. But these situations aren't always black and white.
On rare occasion, a letter might go right up to the line of fair criticism. Maybe it even crosses that line a little. What do you do with a letter like that? It might not be fair to the subject to run it as is, but it might not be fair to the letter writer to spike it. And the readers lose either way.
I think I think it's proper, in those rare instances, to provide a copy of the letter to the person being criticized -- with the name and any information that would identify the writer deleted -- for purposes of obtaining a response that would appear at the same time as the letter. Again, I emphasize that the name of the letter writer and anything in the letter that would identify the writer must be deleted before the letter is given to the subject for the response. The letter writer's name is not identified to anybody until the letter is published.
I wouldn't make a habit of doing this. I've done it maybe three or four times in a quarter-century as a small-town editor. But sometimes, for the fairness of all concerned, it's the right thing to do.

8:28 PM, September 21, 2006  

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