Clippings by John S. McCright: Your letters to the editor matter

Why is it that when people disagree these days the only way we seem to be able to address each other is through shouting? Sometimes if feels like we are all so sure that reasonable arguments aren’t going to change minds that we too quickly raise our voices as if physical intimidation will sway the opinions of those we disagree with.
Fortunately we have these pages of typed out opinion in the Addison Independent every week — pages 4 and 5, sometimes 7, occasionally beyond that when a lot of people have something to say — where we encourage our neighbors in Addison County and Brandon to share their opinions on matters of public policy and matters of broad public interest. We want people to share their disagreements here. Reading and considering differing opinions on important public matters is hopefully how we find the best ways to deal with our challenging public problems; offering a forum where members of the public can consider various options is an important role of newspapers.
And because these opinions are in print it is more difficult to shout and bully than it is in electronic media.
In most cases the letters to the editor of the Addison Independent come through me. One challenge I face when moderating these opinion pages is encouraging people to keep their letters as succinct as possible. As a writer myself I know how difficult it can be to get started when writing something that you have been cogitating on for a good time, and then how difficult it can be to stop writing once you get started. I understand that people form opinions on complex issues like abortion or the role of government in economic development by considering a complex web of information, and often they want to share every tentacle of that web to explain how they got to where they are, and this results in very long letters.
Those looong letters pose two problems. One, space really is limited in the newspaper. We determine how many pages to print based on a percentage of ads sold. Over the years the percentage of space for news has grown, but ultimately we still have to sell some ads to make this business work and actually publish a newspaper. And the addition of addisonindependent.com may in theory give us unlimited space for longer letters, the reality is that time is limited and preparing longer letters for online does chip away at the time our staff has to do other things to get the newspaper out the door.
The second problem of long letters is that — again as a writer it is sometimes hard for me to believe — many people won’t read all the way through a long letter. Some people will see how long a letter is and not even start reading if they think it will take them too long to get through. A very common question I field is what is the word limit for letters to the editor. There is no hard and fast limit. I counsel against 1,000-word letters, and if people ask I tell then that the limit is 700 words but keep it to 400 or 500 if you can. I think that for some people if you give them a word limit they will simply write that many words, so a lower “limit” is better. Also, after working in journalism for more than 25 years I have seen readers’ attention spans slip and believe that nowadays more people stop reading after 700 words (I’m at 588, so I better wrap this up).
Besides length, the other major thing we have to keep an eye out for — and the more crucial — is that people are honest in their letter. If the role of the letters forum is for people to frankly exchange ideas on matters of public importance, then we need to have a minimum threshold for facts that the letter writer must clear. Anyone who has read this far has probably also read an online forum where people of unknown motives throw around so much crap that it hardly seems worth your time. We require that all letter writers include their name and town of residence (for publication) and phone number (not for publication, but in case I need to call and check something). Now and then I call and confirm that a letter submitted under someone’s name truly was submitted by that person; quality control.
What really is a thicket of complications is assuring that facts are accurate in letters to the editor. People don’t often slander others by name in their letters (although some do try, but they don’t usually put up a fuss when I tell them we can’t libel someone in the newspaper because we and they could be sued). The bigger problem is that people simply get their facts wrong. One vexing issue of our era is climate change. My view on policing letters on this topic have evolved.
Journalists for years have been taught to include multiple points of view in their stories, and as a result for decades most stories about climate change took the stance that some scientists say the climate is changing and some say it is not. Journalists have rightfully been criticized for trying to be even-handed when the overwhelming consensus is that climate change is happening and people are to blame. When it comes to letters to the editor, I find that publishing opinions that I know are not only wrong but also detrimental to the public conversation without offering some challenge increasingly seems irresponsible to me.
We got a climate change letter recently that reported facts that I found pretty hard to believe. I’m sure the letter writer was sincere in his assertions about conspiracies and Medieval warming and statistics. Given the age we are in it would have been easy to just tell him, “That’s not true, we’re not going to print your lies.” I worry that the result of publishing the letter would be to distract people from the real work they need to do to help their community by doing something about man-made climate change, not just fret about whether it is happening.
But I also worry that declining to publish the letter would not be helpful in advancing our public policy goals — the more people you shut out of the discussion the less chance you have for consensus. Publishing his letter would show readers the perspective of one member of their community, and, crucially, I thought the writer was sincere in his beliefs.
He wasn’t saying things that were obviously untrue — water isn’t wet, Earth is only 6,000 years old. I checked out some of his claims and I could go point by point why I didn’t agree. But I have enough humility about my own understanding of the world to acknowledge there are some things I don’t know (I hope my kids aren’t reading this). And part of the reason we have a forum is to give others a place to weigh in and to host a back-and-forth that hopefully results in more people pulling in the same direction. My personal point of view is that someone smarter than me will figure out what to say to make this guy and others who have doubts about climate change alter their perception and either get on board with solving this huge existential problem or get out of the way of those who will solve it.
Some minds, of course, won’t be changed. But the letters forum is also a place where we can rally support for public office holders who will take climate change seriously and help us do something about it.

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