As the 2007 campaign season kicks off, it’s a good time to dust off the “Ground rules for letter writing — special silly season edition” column.
1. Keep it short. Letters should be no more than 350 words. Letters longer than this will be returned to you for cutting.
2. Make it accurate. Be prepared to document all statements of fact for the editor. If you can’t back up what you’re stating with documentation, we won’t print it. We don’t have the staff or time to research your facts for you. So “documentation” means more than telling us something was in a recent edition of this paper. At a minimum, give us the edition date and page number. Better yet, provide us with the clipping.
3. Don’t confuse facts with opinions. You’re entitled to your opinion. Letters are often intended as expressions of opinion. That’s fine. But don’t ascribe your opinion of or about something to the person you’re criticizing.
Let’s say you believe an elected official or candidate has a “hidden agenda” about something. You may say so, as in: “I believe Mr. So-and-so has a hidden agenda to raise taxes,” followed by a statement of why you believe this is true. That’s different from “What is Mr. So-and-so’s hidden agenda to raise taxes?”
4. Be civilized. Don’t use the commentary section of the newspaper for personal attacks on other people, including public officials. People in the public arena (whether elected or appointed, in the public sector or in private industry) are subject to criticism for their activities and points of view. Criticism is not (necessarily) the same as a personal attack.
5. Identify yourself fully and accurately. If you’re a member of a political party committee or working in a candidate’s campaign, identify yourself as such in your letter. We’ll do it for you if we’re aware of it. But even if we’re not, you can be sure other people are. In the end, you’re only fooling yourself.
6. Don’t get mad at the editor for enforcing the rules or for insisting that libelous statements be removed from your letter. He’s doing his job. He’s also got the final word, and, ultimately, he can simply refuse to print a letter if you refuse to have the offensive language deleted. We don’t want to argue with our readers, nor do we have the time, on deadline, to debate the issues you’re writing about.
7. Don’t hog the space. We love how enthusiastic our readers are about voicing their opinions. But give other people a chance and wait a week or two between submissions. It often seems we have more letters than we have space. That’s a wonderful problem to have from a community newspaper’s perspective. But if we published your letter last week, your letter this week is going to the bottom of the pile and may not get run.
8. Use e-mail if at all possible (email@example.com). Attach your letter (Word format) to the e-mail or write it in the e-mail message itself. Include your hamlet of residence (and state if not N.Y.) as well as a daytime phone number where we can reach you to confirm the letter (to make sure you really sent it) and/or discuss any problems.
9. Candidates for office, including incumbents seeking re-election, and their supporters, are entitled to use this forum to voice their opinions about local issues and to respond to articles, editorials, columns and letters printed in this newspaper. An important goal of this forum is to provide a place for civil public discourse. We don’t mind candidates using it to tell us what they think; that can only result in a more informed electorate, which is always a good thing. But candidates’ and supporters’ letters shouldn’t be blatant campaigning. This is going to be the editor’s judgment call. (See rule six.)
10. Keep it short. Refer to rule number one.
One last thing: Please don’t confuse the opinions expressed by letter writers and columnists with the editorial viewpoint of the newspaper . The only place you’ll find this newspaper’s opinion is in the editorial column on page eight. The editorials are a collaborative effort by our editorial board — generally drafted by an editor with input from reporters and approved by yours truly, as co-publisher. Just because we print a letter or a column doesn’t mean we agree with the point of view expressed therein. But since we place great value on free speech, we’re honored to provide a forum for its expression.
Let the campaigns begin. And God bless America.
Ms. Civiletti invites you to join a discussion of this topic at civiletti.blogspot.com. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.