About Letters to the Editor ....
By Randa Wagner, Editor –
Last Thursday I had a phone message from a lady that went as follows: “I got at least six phone calls last night referring to the letters of criticism. They pointed out the letters are not to criticize individuals or businesses, it’s not to be more than 350 words long and it’s to be signed by the first and last name.
These three or four people who wrote you are so misinformed it’s pitiful and they threatened to cancel their Sentinel. I wish you would review your letter to the editor policy.”
She did not leave her name but I feel this call merits a response for clarity’s sake.
Any letter or column that appears on the Opinion page is there for that very reason — it’s the writer’s opinion. It’s an individual’s opportunity to exercise their right to freedom of speech. It doesn’t mean it’s factual — it’s an opinion — someone’s viewpoint or perception of a matter.
1. As far as ‘letters are not to criticize individuals or businesses,’ this refers to private individuals or businesses. If you’re mad at your neighbor because he’s a jerk, won’t keep his kids off your property and his hoarding problem has extended out onto his lawn, that’s a civil matter best pursued in court or with law enforcement.
A public employee or office (one that is supported by tax dollars) is another matter. Public officials, school employees, council members, township trustees, etc. answer to and are paid by the public (tax dollars). They are accountable to the public for their job performance and are therefore subject to public scrutiny.
Television, radio or internet commentators have placed themselves in the public domain, unlike a minister in a private church or the CEO of a large privately-owned company. I think some of them say some of the incredibly bold things they do for the sheer shock value and controversy it will generate. After all, it keeps them on the air, doesn’t it?
2. ‘Letters are not to be more than 350 words long.’ Generally that’s true. That policy gives a greater number of people the opportunity to be heard on the opinion page. However, if there is ample room, I may choose to run a longer letter in its entirety. Frankly, I am amazed we get as few letters to the editor as we do. I personally think folks have a lot to say but the fact they have to sign their name to the letter is a deterrent, especially when it is critical of school board, council or township board members. These people are their neighbors and the repercussions of exposing an impropriety or misconduct are too great a risk for the letter writer.
3. ‘It’s to be signed by the first and last name.’ There was a letter from Donna Carver last week that started in one column and carried over into the next. I think this confused more than one reader so, from now on, I will indicate a continuance with any letter that has to move into an adjoining column.
4. ‘These three or four people who wrote you are so misinformed it’s pitiful and they threatened to cancel their Sentinel.’ To reiterate, letters are opinions and if the writer is ‘misinformed,’ any citizen is welcome to write a rebuttal letter and state their opinion to that end. I don’t expect all our readers to agree with the columns I write, or the pieces we publish by other columnists, senators, congressmen or local politicians. There’s a reason every newspaper has an OPINION page. As far as a reader canceling a subscription because they don’t like something we reported on or printed, please remember this is a NEWSpaper. It’s our obligation to inform readers of events and news in the county, as well as offer information we feel is relevant or important to the general population.
5. “I wish you would review your letter to the editor policy.” I did. Please note the changes I made, for clarification’s sake, in the box on the April 4 edition’s Opinion page.
There are many days when it’s not much fun to be the editor. I use my best judgement but I’m human and make mistakes, just like everyone else. If it’s my fault, you’ll get an apology, and I’ll do my darndest not to repeat the mistake. If it’s not my fault, I’ll apologize anyway and try to rectify the matter. Some of the letters to the editor are real ‘iffy’: I struggle over whether or not to print them because they are controversial, yet I do not want to deny someone their right to free speech. There are some that are so inflammatory, racist or slanderous I do not print them. You never see those, of course, but they come in from time to time and I explain to the writer why I will not print it.
Whether or not you agree with this response to the caller’s message, I hope it helps explain why things are handled the way they are. If you don’t agree, you are very welcome to write a letter and let me know. I welcome your opinion.