by Lorenzo Burgio and Kimberly Pena
Letters to the editor have always been submitted to newspapers as a way to incorporate the public’s perspective.
“The letters to the editor section is the prime forum of democracy in a newspaper, the place where the little guy gets to have his say,” explained poynter.org.
The option to submit a letter to the editor serves as a bulletin board for the public to share opinions or information they feel is necessary for other members of the public to know.
It’s a way for citizens to express their concerns publicly and in their own words and has historically played this role.
“Letters to the editor can be effective in influencing public opinion and legislators’ views. The ‘Letter to the Editor’ section is one of the most widely read parts of most newspapers, offering a chance to reach a broad audience. Letters to the editor can provide readers with insights on issues with which they may be unfamiliar, and can also inspire readers to take action,” explained the National Education Association.
In the late 1700s into the early 1800s, lawyer and legislator John Dickinson wrote a series of essays titled “Letters from a farmer in Pennsylvania,” that were periodically published in various newspapers throughout the 13 colonies.
The essays argued that the colonies were sovereign in their internal affairs, and Dickinson argued that taxes were being paid by the colonies in order to raise revenue for Parliament, versus through regulated trade, which he felt was unconstitutional.
The twelve letters submitted by Dickinson helped unite the colonists against the British Empire and highlighted the importance of letters to the editor.
Something that seems to be overlooked in regards to letters to the editor, is the fact that is was written by someone who is not a member of the newspaper’s staff or editorial board.
The work submitted then does not constitute as an article, but a letter to the editor, and its content is not that of the newspaper, but of the public or person who submitted the article.
The purpose of letters to the editor are to tell the newspaper what they are doing wrong, filling holes in stories they published and for citizens to simply explain perception of certain issues to the public.
“In a letter to the editor or opinion piece, you can bring up information not addressed in a news article, and can create the impression of widespread support or opposition to an issue,” explained the National Council of Teachers of English.
Therefore it will be considered unethical for any staff member of the newspaper to change the writing and the meaning of the letters to the editor. Its purpose is to provide a perspective from outside of the newspaper organization that is untouched by the paper.
For a staff member to change the meaning of the piece, is committing an injustice to the public. It is not expressing the authentic meaning of the letter and it does not provide the most detailed insight of members of the community.
“There’s some value in providing readers with a notion of what people in their community are saying and thinking… We do our best to maintain a kind of a coarse filter and err on the side of publishing something rather than not publishing it.”
However, this does not obligate the paper to publish every letter sent to the editor, it is based on the editor’s discretion on what they think is for the best interest to the paper and its readership.