By Jim Pumarlo
Election season poses a host of questions for editors as they sift through the natural upsurge in letters. For those in the midst of spring elections, editors are likely making many decisions on the fly. For the primary and general elections later this year, it’s not too early to set the ground rules.
Then share the policy with as broad an audience as possible, including candidates and their campaign managers. It’s an excellent topic for a column to readers.
Election season is an opportunity to get fresh voices on your page. The ultimate goal is to serve the electorate by offering a lively debate on the pros and cons of candidates and issues. At the same time, editors face the headache of sifting through organized letter-writing campaigns.
Here is one list of dos and don’ts that newspapers consider when offering their “advice to readers” for editorial page submissions.
Stick to local authors. Unless the circumstances are extraordinary, it’s reasonable to reject letters from residents outside your readership area.
Focus on local issues. Election coverage on your news pages predominantly focuses on local issues. The strongest letters should highlight the local perspective of issues.
Make letters substantive. We’re all familiar with the standard litany of candidate attributes – trustworthy, hardworking, honest, accessible, dedicated to family and committed to representing the interests of their constituents. Such endorsements shed little light on the candidates and likely do little to advance their electability. Feel free to aggressively edit these letters and reserve space for letters that address meaningful issues.
Keep the exchanges civil. Encourage writers to focus on the issues and provide the appropriate sources for their facts. It’s well within newspapers’ purview to reject those letters that are strictly personal in nature.
Set ground rules for rebuttal. Space is too previous to allow long-running exchanges among candidates and their supporters. Considering allowing each individual two letters; each has an opportunity for a rebuttal after the initial exchange. Someone always will have the “last word.”
Don’t ramble. Readers grow tired of lengthy letters on the same subjects and letters columns dominated by the same writers. A short letter to the point has greater impact than a rambling letter repetitive in its message.
Limit target of letters. Exceptions might arise, but as a general rule, newspapers should be careful about allowing candidates to write letters in response to issues raised in paid ads. The best guideline is that candidates respond to the message in the same avenue as the original message. Campaigns are right to be upset if their paid ads are rebutted on a regular basis in the free letters column.
Allow candidates to submit letters – with restrictions. Keep in mind that candidates have the opportunity to advance their positions on issues in a variety of avenues – and not just through paid advertising. They routinely issue press releases and participate in forums. Editors should be attentive to the savvy candidates who methodically submit letters as a strategy to supplement or replace paid advertising.
Verify all letters. The process is tedious and time consuming, but the possibility of fake authors is not far-fetched.
One of the most important guidelines is the deadline for letters that raise new issues that might warrant a response from the other side. Eleventh-hour charges fall into two camps, each prompting a different handling: Some letters are strategically lobbed in the final days; the information is known well in advance but surfaces late with the hope that it might deliver a knockout punch. Editors are well within their bounds to reject this type of letter altogether – even if the point might have proved legitimate had the letter arrived earlier.
In rare cases, letters might raise an issue that truly just came to light and warrants public attention. In the worst-case scenario, a letter might arrive with only one edition prior to the election. Editors have a couple of options: One avenue is to do a news story. The reporter can contact all the parties involved, noting the circumstances of how the issue was raised. Or the newspaper might decide to publish the letter, but let the “opponent” see the letter in advance and write a response. Both letters would be published alongside each other with an explanatory editor’s note. The “other side” may not want to respond, but the offer should be extended.
Editors can be subjective in deciding whether to publish these letters. At the core is whether the newspaper has time to do justice with the information, despite how compelling it might be.
Editors’ best defense is their offense: Publish the letters policy early and often, so writers cannot complain – with any basis – that they weren’t aware of deadlines. Then stick to the deadlines. If 5 p.m. is the cutoff, check with the front desk when the hour strikes. Clear the fax machine and e-mails. And then be prepared for the creative challenges – that the newspaper’s clock must be five minutes faster or that an errand took longer than expected to make the delivery tardy. The excuses are most amusing when they come from veteran managers who have coordinated letter campaigns for years.
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.