In the 1800s, U.S. newspapers were the vehicles of expression for any individuals who could afford the ink, paper and press and, more often than not and had an ax to grind.
Libel laws were nonexistent, leaving the newspaper owners free to say whatever they wanted – true or not – about anybody. And it wasn’t unusual then, as it is now, for many people to believe “If it’s in the newspaper, then it must be true.”
Flash forward to today. Most respectable newspapers would never dream of publishing serious allegations against a person unless there was sufficient proof. The Pilot is no different. In fact, this editorial space is one of the few places in the paper where we step out of our journalistic role as observer to actively participate by offering our opinion on various issues.
The letters to the editor is another area where readers can share their opinions – within certain guidelines. The most important rule is: No libelous or defamatory accusations aimed at individuals; and no such accusations regarding public figures without proof.
This week we received several letters that crossed that line. The writers leveled serious accusations against the people at the center of two stories: one about Bella, a dog left outside Fred Meyer by her owner and allegedly “rescued” by another; and one about a neighbor complaining about barking dogs at the South Coast Humane Society shelter.
A few readers saw fit to write some nasty things about the individuals at the center of these stories. The writers’ assumptions about said individuals were just that – assumptions. The writers readily admitted they had never met the individuals in question, and that they knew nothing of the individuals’ personal circumstances.
Fortunately, most of the writers saw the error of their ways and either rescinded their letter or rewrote it with a different tone.
We certainly understand how one can have a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to perceived crimes against animals. We can understand how such a reaction might lead one to fire off a blistering letter to the editor.
In such cases, it’s best to write such a letter, throw it away or hit delete, and send one written in a more civil tone.
Otherwise, we might as well return to the 1800s, where anything goes.