Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Printing Anonymous Letters to the Editor Puts Public Trust in Newspapers at Risk

Letters to the editor are the most read, discussed and cussed portions of the newspaper.

Offering an editorial forum (page) is one way a newspaper helps to preserve the inalienable right of people in a free society to discuss, question and challenge actions and utterances of our government and of our public institutions.

Journalists uphold the right to speak unpopular opinions and the privilege to either agree or disagree with the majority.

One way that can be done is through the publication of letters to the editor. Letters are printed in order to allow readers an opportunity to express views differing from those of the newspaper or ones expressed by individuals in published articles or other letters.

There are, however, two types of letters that are damaging to a newspaper's reputation as well as the public's trust in what they publish: letters with libelous material and anonymous letters.

Not running libelous letters is a policy universally agreed to by newspapers. Policy's concerning anonymous letters seemed to be a more varied.

However, research shows that running an anonymous letter to the editor is an easy way to get you or the newspaper sued because they are more likely to be filled with misinformation or libel. Because an anonymous letter cannot be identified with a person or group, it has limited value.

As a communication professional focused on helping restore the public trust in the news media, my recommendation is that anonymous letters to the editor should go straight to the spreader.

If a citizen has something truthful and valid to say, they should write a letter without trying to harm others and let the readers evaluate what they have to say in the light of who they are.

Often times, the names of the writer reveal other motives behind a letter. For example, a chairman of one county political party lashes out against the fundraising practices of another.

As a former weekly newspaper editor, I had a saying about letters to the editor -- “A person of integrity does not have to hide when they speak, or write.”

I know other newspapers keep anonymous letters and evaluate the material for potential stories but my experience has been that in probably 95 percent of the cases, that is also a waste of time.

Of course, that perspective is from the fact that I always tried to use the limited space in the weekly newspaper I edited to tell stories that were an essential part of our community journalism effort instead of dealing with rumors and personal arguments.

So here is the bottom line: in order to maintain the public's trust in what is printed, a newspaper's policy should be to pitch anonymous letters to the editor and do everything possible to encourage letters that express a wide range of opinions.

If it's worth saying or putting in writing, it's worth signing. Otherwise, it's worth nothing.

3 Comments:

Blogger Ollie said...

I believe that there are times when a person believes that something should be brought to the attention of the public but making their name public would result in retribution. If the editor knows the name of the writer it should be published as "Name Withheld."

11:52 AM, April 20, 2012  
Blogger Scott Valentine said...

I am studying this topic for personal interest, since my local paper has suddenly switched to "must-sign" policies, banning anonymous submissions out of hand.

Unfortunately, this seems to be more due to resource constraints and attempting to avoid legal complications than actual journalistic integrity or ethical considerations. The main supporters of the decision hail it as a new age of civility. In practice, this seems to cause those forums to become dominated by particular political views. Naturally things are more civil when everyone is of the same mind.

If we grant that civility will increase, we have to weigh that gain against the potential loss of opposing views, vulnerable voices, and important disclosures. The entire point of a free press (distinct from free speech) is to enable discussion, and that is generally most useful when opposition and counterpoint is presented.

It seems the 'sweet spot' is to require name and contact information, but then allow that information to be withheld, as noted above. Opponents to this particular solution seem to want disclosure so they can have targets away from the LttE format.

Interesting, no?

6:04 PM, August 24, 2017  
Blogger J. said...

What about a letter that could get you fired? There are things that need to be said but I cannot afford to lose my job.

11:57 PM, November 02, 2017  

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