Understanding Tribune letters to the editor

Published 8:41 am Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie

One of the most-cherished parts of the Albert Lea Tribune is the letters to the editor, but it can be one of trickiest to understand, too.

That’s because some readers see anything that is printed in black and white as being the honest-to-God truth. However, letters to the editor are opinions. And opinions can be interpreted in many ways.

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Therefore, my advice to readers of letters to the editor is this: Be skeptical.

One writer’s definition of a fact might be a falsehood to another writer. When it comes to letters and other forms of opinion writing, what is factual is in the eye of the beholder.

For instance, take cuts to local government aid. This can be blamed 5 million different ways. Democrats might say the Republicans wanted it, and Republicans might say Democrats were OK with the cuts — but unless one party controls the Legislature and governorship at the same time, members of both parties are part of state budget agreements. That means they generally blame each other for LGA cuts, even if the real divide is metro-versus-outstate. Add to the debate how LGA cuts can result in local property tax increases — yet not directly — then both sides are twisting words over tax cuts and tax hikes and cuts to services and what is actually business-friendly and who is harming Greater Minnesota and so on and so forth until the voters are confused thoroughly about the fact of who ultimately was responsible for, as an example, why your city leaders have to reduce the number of cops on patrol.

Personally, I think there are readers who are smart enough to discern content properly. They are the longtime and loyal readers. They see opinions as merely opinions and completely separate from news stories, when the reporters are seeking facts, filtering out nonsense and making a professional effort to be objective.

And then there are readers who don’t get the difference. They don’t see the difference between opinions and news stories. They question why newspapers even have editorials. And no matter how much education the newspaper does to explain the difference, some still just don’t or cannot divide the two.

Who can blame them?

After all, local TV news tends to not have segments dedicated to opinions. Neither do the 5:30 p.m. network news shows. Viewers form notions of what news is supposed to be, then apply TV traits to their newspaper. I’ve had people call me up and demand “equal time” based on some letter they read, to which I reply they are speaking in TV jargon and urge them to pen their own letter in response.

However, newspapers and television clearly are different animals. Newspapers have had opinions longer in their history than they have had news. And objective news came to the profession pretty much in the 20th century. The 19th century was filled with all kinds of yellow journalism.

The national news media still has lots of opinionated programming, though. The most well-known TV-based opinion was probably the Andy Rooney segment on “60 Minutes.” And TV shows hosted by Nancy Grace, Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews horribly blend news with opinions all the time, which I think hurts the credibility of the news media in general. Many media watchers say, considering the slanted leanings of Fox News and MSNBC or the hyperactivity of CNN, that the days of yellow journalism are back — but it’s now widely found on cable TV rather than in print.

OK, let’s talk about the letters policy of the Albert Lea Tribune. We print it daily on the left side of the Opinions page.

We print nearly all of the letters we receive. They just have to meet our few requirements. All letter writers must supply us with their contact information. That means phone number and physical address, but we only print the name and city. Letters must be less than 500 words, which is fairly generous considering most newspapers set limits at 300, 350 or 400.

We do not print letters that are preposterous. That is, if you ramble on about how pink elephants on parade are taking the Dallas Cowboys on an all-expenses paid trip to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan … OK, you see what I mean. You must show some reason.

We do not print petitions or anything that resembles a list. The letters to the editor are supposed to be about dialogue, right? If you want to thank supporters of your event, we can print a letter that is written in prose, but if it is essentially is a list, then it belongs elsewhere in the newspaper.

We do not print libelous letters. For the writer’s sake and for ours, we keep letters that cross the line of defamation out of the paper.

No swearing. No fake #@*% swearing.

No form letters. Sometimes, we don’t catch these, but if we discover prior to printing that the writer didn’t write it, we won’t run it.

No plagiarism. Again, write your own letter. Don’t submit one exactly the same as one you read on a vacation. An experienced writer will know how to attribute or excerpt other sources.

Keep private matters private. There is a line we maintain between public affairs and private matters. If you get bad service at a restaurant and send us a letter, we won’t print it. It’s really a private matter unless it crosses into the public sphere, like if the police get involved or if there is a court case filed. By the same token, if you get good service at the restaurant, we won’t print it, either. However, if the employees of the restaurant save a life and everyone in town is talking about it, that topic becomes a public matter. See how that line can be crossed?

We correct grammar and spelling and edit for style. Style refers to consistency. For instance, most newspapers go with adviser over advisor.

Do we fact-check letters? We don’t have an obligation to, though at times we do ask the writer if a mistake was made. Like I said, what is considered fact by one writer is considered false by others. Still, remember that opinions in the letters can dissuade as easily as they can persuade. If a letter writer gets a fact wrong, that hurts the credibility of the letter writer.

I used to work for Michael Gartner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor at the Ames Tribune. He printed a letter about train crossings with plainly false information. I said, “Don’t we correct that?” He replied something to the effect of this: “No. Their errors only hurt their credibility. We print letters that meet our basic requirements and then correct for grammar, spelling and style.”

The space for letters to the editor is a forum for dialogue and American free speech. My main goal, as referee of the forum, is to maintain a vibrant discussion. So keep the letters coming.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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