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Overseeing letters to the editor

I don’t know about you, but the letters to the editor in recent weeks have been, at times, wildly fascinating, entertaining and informative.

I found the letters debating creationism vs. evolution to be particularly interesting because the writers introduced new ideas and perspectives on an age-old discussion.

The letters for and against the tea party, not so much.

I’ve been surprised by the volume of letters coming in this month. Normally, during the summer, the number of letters drop as people go on vacation or become occupied with other things.

As editor, one of the most challenging, and often frustrating, responsibilies is overseeing the letters to the editor. The letters are the raw, relatively unfiltered feelings of people in our community. It is a sensitive forum for sure and the reason why it’s the most read section of the paper. 

Not everyone is happy with how  these letters are handled, especially those individuals whose letters are not published. For the record, I estimate about 95 percent of the letters I receive are published (and I have the records to prove it!). 

Some accuse me of not printing some letters because I personally disagree with them, or like to play favorites. I wish that was true. My job would be much easier if I could just toss out letters I don’t like.

Some letters are not published simply because they are too long. These letters run upwards of 500 to 800 words or more and would take up the entire space for letters in a given issue. Publishing such letters would not only delay how quickly other letters appear, but would not be fair to readers who worked hard to state their opinions succinctly in 250 words or less, as requested by our letter policy. I appreciate the readers who have reworked their long letters to meet the word limit.

Some letters are not published because they make potentially libelous statements or accusations against a person. Both the letter writer and the newspaper can be held accountable in cases of proven libel. In this lawsuit-happy world of ours, I don’t want to take any chances and will often err on the side of caution, until the statements have been vetted.

There are some letters that go straight into the wastebasket because of the tone. These include letters that are outright nasty, racists or simply name-calling. Letters that attack the writer and not the issue will not be published. I believe people can and should make a point without personally attacking individuals.

There have been letters that, in hindsight, shouldn’t have been published. If anything, it proves that I try to be as liberal with the letters as possible.

Another issue is whether to allow a reader to write a rebuttal to readers’ response to  his or her original letter.

At first I wanted to say no. People get one shot and that’s that. I’ve since decided that it’s only fair to allow people to respond with a second letter, within reason

But when responses to response degenerate into one-upmanship and fail to serve any kind of continuing discussion, I reserve the right to cut them off.

I try to be fair with treatment of letters and I try to encourage the broadest discussion of community concerns without it becoming a cesspool of negativity and bitterness. 

I thank each and every reader who has written letters to me during the past decade. It make my job – and this newspaper – infinitely more interesting.

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