On a Friday afternoon, you receive a signed letter to the editor critical of a school principal. You know when the letter is published it will cause a rumble in the community. You also know that because of publication deadlines, the letter can't be published until Tuesday's issue.
If you were the editor, what would you do?
Making such decisions about printing controversial letters is an issue we frequently run into at The Daily Triplicate. Indeed, on Tuesday we received a letter critical of a manager from several of his employees.
But first, back to the posed dilemma, which we can use as a springboard to discuss letters in general. The dilemma offered two possible solutions:
A) In advance of publication show the letter to the principal so he can have time to draft a response that can be printed in the same issue.
B) Print the letter and let others, including the principal, respond in a letter on the issues listed in the complaint.
Two readers willing to have their names printed shared their thoughts.
Jim Smith, of Crescent City, wrote: "In this case neither choice A or B are the correct ethical answer.The editor of any paper needs to be careful not to libel or slander individuals. Letters are an option for the editor to print and are not a requirement. A better course of action would be to not print the letter, assign a reporter to investigate the criticism as a possible news story and then print factual information that lets the community decide if there should be criticism of the school principal."
Larry Lakes, of Crescent City, adds: "One assumption is that the newspaper policy forpublishing letters always allows latitude on what is published. Intensively offensive letters can always be kept from publication. The second assumption is the letter is not just a personal or personality attack on the principal; surely the paper is not to be used as a forum for personal agendas or direct personal attacks and should be under no obligation to publish these letters.
"So who decides what is intensively offensive or true?The editor, of course, who has to make those fair, and consistent decisions everyday.
"... once the letter is determined not to be a personal attack, in a small rural community it seems easy to decide the best ethical and professional way to proceed with this dilemma. In a small community, if the editor perceives the letter will cause a rumble in the community' then take the high road, do the fair thing, and proceed as follows:
Hold publishing the letter, treat it like a news story, check facts, get the other side, and, if the facts are valid, print the letter and a story covering the information uncovered by the letter.
If the facts are untrue or distorted; return the letter to the sender with the refusal to publish lies.'"
Thanks to Larry and Jim for their responses. Each offered insightful answers.
Both raised some good points.
First, if the letter is libelous, it's not going to make the paper, no matter who it's about. Exactly what is libel, however, is a matter of great debate. In it's most basic form, it's utruthful writing that injures someone's reputation. For example, if the letter writing said the principal was having an illicit affair with a secretary, and it wasn't true, then it's libel.
Many states have their own definition of libel, so libel in Texas is legally different than in New York or California. In our state, some forms of libel require proof that loss of reputation actually resulted before the principal could receive any damages in a lawsuit. For example, if the letter resulted in his firing and prevented him from being hired elsewhere, he's got a good case.
Further complicating the matter is that usually public figures, especially those who are elected, are limited in what they can claim is libelous. If they weren't restricted, public discourse and criticism of them could be greatly curtailed. But defining what is a public figure also is a matter of great debate.
Libel is the reason you won't see employees' letters critical of managers appearing in the paper anytime soon. Typically the manager of a private business is not a public figure. Without any court action being taken against the manager or the business, the statements made in the letter are potentially libelous.
Which brings us to another good point Larry and Jim made: the need to possibly do a news story if the criticism has merit. Sometimes we do hold a letter to fact check it. A recent example of that was a letter about the city wanting Remax to remove its mural. We decided that if more than a rumor, it would be a worthy news story. The letter turned out to be factual, and upon learning that, we ran it and wrote a front-page story.
Given this, my advice on letters is simple: Stick to the facts and be rational. Cut the cute personal attacks name calling and degradation don't make sound arguments, even if they've won votes for some politicians. That doesn't mean we won't print personal attacks, but frankly I think such letters say more about the letter writer than the person or organization being criticized.
In addition, there are some types of letters we won't print. Our guidelines usually are printed each day on the Opinion page, and you can find them above.
In any case, the central question of the posed dilemma wasn't if we should print the letter but if we should give the principal a chance to respond before it's printed.
Let's presume the letter isn't libelous. In that case, my answer is B, or "No, he doesn't get see the letter in advance."
By letting the principal see the letter in advance, he is being placed in a privileged position. He has the opportunity to sway the editor to not publish the letter, which would not serve public discourse about public issues (a principal, after all, is a public employee managing a public institution).
The letter may come as a surprise to the principal, but so would the contents of his response to the original letter writer, presuming a response is given at all. The original letter writer isn't going to be given the privilege of seeing what the principal or those defending him writes, either.
There have been times in my career when letter writers penned long and extremely well-thought piece on a significant community issue that could run as a column. Typically, these pieces don't attack people but focus on issues. In that case, I might ask someone holding an opposing view to write a similar length piece on the issue, and run them as a pro-con. But neither the original letter writer nor the person I ask to write the opposing view get to read the other side's viewpoint in advance of publication. In addition, I always ask the original letter writer for his permission to print the submission in a pro-con format.
Finally, there is one point in Larry's response that does trouble me. Part of his reasoning is based on the notion that the newspaper serves "a small rural community," implying that a newspaper serving a big urban community might follow a different course of action. But why should an ethical rule only apply to some people and not to others because of population?