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EDITORIAL REFLECTIONS

Letters to the editor can enlighten, rather than inflame

Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo  is a favorite with three generations of my family, and it comes to mind occasionally when I’m reading the letters to the editor columns in various publications.

At their best, letters to the editor add to our store of information about issues, events and specific individuals or groups as writers inform us about effects of events or policies that we might not have thought of, point us toward organizations working in areas we are interested in or lead us to further sources of information.

At their worst, some letters to the editor are equivalent to attack ads that are now spilling over from political campaigns into our everyday lives.

How many of us look first at the name at the bottom of the letter, maybe read the first sentence and decide to skip it because we could almost recite verbatim previous tirades by that writer?

For a few days after the shooting attack in Tucson, letters in publications I looked at seemed more measured and quiet.  Hopes for restraint, however, are being dashed.

Recognizing that selecting letters for publication is a balancing act at best and opens the selector to outraged threats at worst, I have some modest proposals for editors, writers who want to be taken seriously and readers.  If I ran the selection process, here’s what I would do.

If a letter is a rebuttal to a previously published letter, it should be shorter than the original, and this rule should apply to each successive exchange.   A string of rebuttals produces so much smoke you can’t even see the mirrors, much less the logic.  Many professional journals use this rule.

“I have heard that” should raise the question of whether the writer is reporting rumor or fact.

Words or phrases that put down or bait a entire group of people should disqualify a letter or article from publication.  Unless an entire group has been interviewed in depth, the assertion that what “those people” think do or say is a meaningless statement.

A writer who uses vague generalities such as “most Americans” or unfounded statistics such as “studies have shown” should be asked for specifics.

It is safe to disregard a letter or article that repeats, word for word, the attack mailing that arrived in yesterday’s mail.

Here is a suggestion for all of us:  Check with web sites or reference sources that provide reliable information. 

FactCheck.org provides a source of information which also asks readers to tell them about material that needs to be checked.  Snopes.com  checks out rumors, urban legends and such.  Googling “fact check” will yield a list of web sites on a variety of subjects.

Nancy Minard - Editorial Team