May 1, 2005 - The Spokesman-Review (WA)
Your Guidebook on Letters, from A to Z
By Gordon Jackson
Any newspaper worth its salt makes space available for reader feedback. The most important reason for doing this is to provide the community a widely distributed "bulletin board," where you can post your concerns, respond to others' ideas, commend or criticize public officials, and so on. But how does The Spokesman-Review's letters page operate?
The paper's editorial staff say they have a commitment to publishing all (yes, that's all) eligible letters. We'll say more about what makes a letter "eligible" in a moment, but for now let's look at how letters get handled. Kelly Guilfoil, who does the initial screening of letters, says the paper gets about 200 submissions in a typical week. Of those, about half are either screened out or put on hold, and the other half passed on to Gary Crooks, the associate editor who works closely with letters.
Those that make the first cut meet the paper's strict 200-word limit and address some issue that affects our community, and do so with some originality. Normally, the paper limits letters to individuals within its circulation area, unless the writer has a direct stake in the issue.
What doesn't make it? A few get cut because they're so poorly written that it's hard to know what they're getting at. Others are obviously form letters sent in on behalf of an organization or a lobbying effort. Yet others deal with personal gripes about how the writer was treated in a local store, for example, or the writers believe they've been wronged by a government agency or some other institution. The paper rarely publishes personal gripes. Nor will the editors run a letter that's essentially a personal attack. The paper also has a strict taboo against running anonymous letters.
If your letter is otherwise on track but is too long, Guilfoil will follow up and ask you to cut it. (On rare occasions, a particularly long letter may have the makings of a guest column, but that's another story.) In addition, she'll check with the writer of every letter that's about to go in to ensure its authenticity. If the letter contains personal attacks, she'll ask you to consider removing them; if you do, the letter is highly likely to appear; if you don't, it's out.
Also out are letters that are libelous: that which injures the reputation of others in a way that isn't protected by law. (For example, saying someone's a thief, drug dealer or murderer is fine if the person's been convicted; otherwise, you -- and the paper -- would be in trouble.)
The letters that make it to Crooks' desk get queued in the order they're received. Normally, every eligible letter that makes it to him will run within a week, maybe sooner. Because an essential function of the letters page is that it be a sounding board for the community, he may exclude letters that are simply echoing points already made. This is especially so when an issue has received an extended airing.
On occasion, he'll hold off on a letter for reasons of taste. Sometimes letters deal with a specific concern about the newspaper's policies or practices and these are best handled in the "Ask the Editors" column, he says. Otherwise, though, he tends to run all remaining letters in the order they were received. Sometimes news events, like 9-ll or the death of the pope lead to a flurry of more timely letters, which he'll move to the head of the line.
There are two more checks. First, has the writer had a letter published within the previous 30 days? If so, the new letter will either get held a while or else get dropped. This rule is to prevent a relatively few people from getting a disproportionate share of the microphone. Second, if there's a clear factual error in the letter, the editors will ask the writer to correct it or at the least provide a source for the information. "We won't knowingly print an error," says Crooks.
Crooks and Doug Floyd, the editorial page editor, say they don't screen letters on ideological grounds. On the contrary, given the intent of the page as a place for diverse views, they welcome letters from diverse perspectives. Floyd says, "A democratic society needs a vigorous discussion of the issues and the best letters are those that contribute to that discussion." If you're not seeing letters that reflect your position, it means people who think similarly to you aren't writing in or aren't doing so in an acceptable format.
The late poet John Ciardi presumably wasn't thinking of letters to the editor when he said somewhat facetiously, "The reader deserves an honest opinion. If he doesn't deserve it, give it to him anyhow." Yet that's what a good letters page is. It's a place for readers to give each other their honest opinions, especially when they think some aspect of the paper's coverage or a previous letter writer deserves to be set straight. It's your space; use it well.
Gordon Jackson is associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of journalism at Whitworth College. He writes periodic ombudsman reviews for The Spokesman-Review. You can send your questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can write to him, in care of Doug Floyd, The Spokesman-Review, 999 W. Riverside, Spokane, WA 99201.