Newspapers don’t always agree on policies as to letters to the editor, especially the withholding of names of letter writers Another issue is whether to consider letters that advocate the election of a political candidate as advertising and charge the regular open rate.
On withholding of names, The Missourian has had a policy of not revealing the names of writers of letters when requested as long as the letter was signed, a telephone number was listed, along with the town where the person lives for verification purposes. We will consider not revealing the name of the letter writer in these instances. The letters by people whose names are withheld must meet other criteria, such as the letter not being libelous/slanderous; not in bad taste; must contain factual information (a judgment call by the editor); are not from a person who has a dispute with a neighbor or business (we don’t have the resources/time to get both sides except in a major, public interest case); and must not be an unfair attack on another person. Also, personal disputes between an employee and his or her employer are not published.
There are situations in which The Missourian requires that the name of the writer be published due to the nature of the letter. The decision is another judgment call.
For the editor, it comes down to a judgment call as to whether a letter meets the criteria listed. The editor usually seeks input from other senior staff members. The decision reached does not make some letter writers happy. Many do say they understand.
The policy on letter writers endorsing or advocating the election of a certain candidate can create challenges as to where do you draw the line. It’s easy when a candidate’s name is used in an endorsement. When the candidates’ names are not included, but a discussion of the issues makes it clear who the writer is promoting, presents a gray area. That presents another judgment call.
We have felt for years that there is justification not to reveal a writer’s name in certain instances because of a potential for retaliation. Experience tells whether there is a potential for retaliation. It has happened in some instances.
Back to charging as advertising for letters that clearly endorse a candidate, we are considering such a policy. They would be marked at the bottom of the published letter as “Paid Ad” if they decide to publish it. We read with interest a commentary by a weekly editor in Illinois in the Publishers’ Auxiliary who decided to charge for letters to the editor of this type. Jon Whitney, publisher of the Carroll County Review, Thomson, Ill., wrote in Publishers’ Auxiliary: “Although there is an ethical line that concerned me, I wrestled with the issue of possibly stifling honest public opinion about candidates versus advertising revenues. I determined that it was the various candidates (who orchestrated letters) who had crossed the line from honest expression of opinion to a crass attempt at seeking free advertising.” Newspapers that charge for endorsement letters usually require payment up front.
“Several letter writers declined to pay, but none of them has been overly angry about the policy,” Whitney wrote.
The Missourian’s long-standing policy of not publishing letters that advocate the election of a person is well known and we haven’t had cases of candidates orchestrating letters. But the potential of that always is there.
As everybody knows, this is a presidential election year. Time is running short before we vote in November. We may or may not adopt a policy for charging for candidate endorsement letters. Time for a decision on that policy is short in this election year.