Annual Report 2001 : Letters To The Editor
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Complaints about letters continue to feature prominently in the Press Council's adjudications. In 2001 there were nine complaints about non-acceptance of letters, and several others objecting to letters that had been published or to the way they had been abridged or edited.
There is no mystery about the failure of minds to meet concerning letters that are not accepted. The letter-writer is intent on one thing - getting a point of view on a particular subject into print. A publication's editorial staff, on the other hand, has to weigh numerous bids for space and make many judgments in shaping the forthcoming edition, with the overall aim of making the newspaper or magazine as balanced and varied, as fresh and stimulating, as possible. As part of a publication's Opinion pages, the Letters section can contribute a wide range of lively, thoughtful, provocative commentary. Just as journalists find to their dismay that articles they have worked on don't reach print because of constraints on space, or queries about the article's continuing topicality or quality, letter-writers have to accept that what they submit may also be spiked. One metropolitan New Zealand daily prints about 60 percent of the letters it receives; many therefore have to be rejected for one or more reasons.
The Letters section is a vital part of any newspaper's involvement with its community, and is often described as the people's forum. However, this does not mean that it can be exempt from the editor's judgment in determining what goes into the pages, and in editing the texts submitted. The Press Council's Principle 12 is very clear:
"Selection and treatment of letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance, and public interest on the correspondents' views."
The frustration of unsuccessful letter-writers is not eased by what is happening in other media. Talkback radio is well established as a means of sounding off, with constraints on time, rather than quality, determining what goes to air. The rapid development of interactive Internet websites has similarly boosted the expectation that individual viewpoints will speedily reach an audience. Across the world, newspaper websites are vigorously promoting the diversity of new ways in which feedback can be made.
Message board, talk boards, chat-on-line and similar pages compete eagerly for reader and viewer participation: Have Your Say Straightaway On Burning Issues; Join Or Start A Conversation On Whatever Interests You. One newspaper in northern England runs a Spout 'n' Shout talk board. Some newspapers have multiple community boards covering the different interests of readers. Some nominate topics for forum sessions well in advance, with frequent urging "to keep your eyes on the page for the next big debate".
The emphasis in Internet feedback talk boards, etc is on short, sharp e-mail messages. Overseas, the trend is for Letters to the Editor pages to reprint a selection of these brief messages, thus broadening their mix of material and enabling more contributors to appear in print. It will be interesting to see if this leads generally - both here and overseas - to a greater proportion of very brief messages in letters pages.
In these Internet sites there is, of course, concern for standards but the general assumption is that participants will be able to post their views, with editorial intervention coming principally through removal of unacceptable material from the site.
Letters to the Editor, on the other hand, undergo careful scrutiny and editing before anything appears in print. This is time-consuming, especially in small newspaper offices with few staff to cover all the daily tasks. Some disappointed letter-writers are particularly aggrieved that they hear nothing back by way of acknowledgment of their letters. Again, there often aren't the human resources to provide a response. Some newspapers have very usefully developed a Replies To Correspondents end-note, in which named contributors are advised of the reasons for non-acceptance or that their points have been noted.
The Press Council believes that many of the complaints it receives would not be made if there were better understanding of how letters are chosen for publication.
The procedure in one major New Zealand daily illustrates the time and care that go into preparing the Letters section. Each letter as it is received is logged into a diary. It is first read by the editor's personal assistant who checks to see whether name and address and other information are included. She also attaches any background material - for example, an earlier news item - to the letter. Then the person in charge of the Letters section goes through them all and notes whether they will be published, referred to a third party for comment, or not published. The editor then goes through the letters again and makes the final decision as to what is printed and whether a particular letter should jump the queue because it is very topical. Published letters are then filed so they are available for reference. The editor seeks to publish a wide range of opinion on current topics, and sees the Letters section as one of the editor's ways of making a distinctive mark on the quality of the paper.
Regular printing on letters pages of the submission rules is necessary. Generally, rules deal with formal requirements (such as format, method of submission, address and signature details and maximum length) and specify the reasons for editing letters, such as legal and space constraints, clarity and topicality. The Press Council believes that readers should be told that letters might be abridged. The Press Council has also recommended that when there is abridgement, a note should be appended to the published letter. Some newspapers put specific limits on how often a particular correspondent will be considered for publication.
Some sets of in-house rules and guidelines go further. One overseas newspaper says: "We no longer print letters that directly respond to other letters. If you wish to reply to another letter, stick to the issues involved and avoid all reference to the other letter". Another advises: "Do not engage in recriminations against earlier correspondents. Try to advance the debate so that other readers might join in the discussion in subsequent letters."
For some editors, there is the problem of the vexatious correspondent whose response to rejection of a letter may be to fire off several more, or to try to berate the editor in person. The Press Council strongly supports the right of editors to lay down rules, not just for the submission and editing of letters, but also for their dealings with correspondents so as to ensure that scarce editorial time is not wasted, and the interests of other correspondents are protected.