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A letter to the editor[1] (sometimes abbreviated LTTE or LTE) is a letter sent to a publication about issues of concern to its readers. Usually, letters are intended for publication.

Usually, letters to the editor are associated with newspapers and newsmagazines. However, they are sometimes sent to other periodicals (such as entertainment and technical magazines), and radio and television stations. In the latter instance, letters are sometimes read on the air (usually, on a news broadcast or on talk radio).

In many publications, letters to the editor may be sent either through conventional mail or electronic mail.

Contents

Subject matter

The subject matter of letters to the editor vary widely. However, the most common topics include:

  • Supporting or opposing an editorial stance, or to responding another writer's letter to the editor.
  • Commenting on a current issue being debated by a governing body – local, regional or national depending on the publication's circulation. Often, the writer will urge elected officials to make their decision based on his/her viewpoint.
  • Remarking on materials (such as a news story) that have appeared in a previous edition. Such letters may either be critical or praising.
  • Correcting a perceived error or misrepresentation.
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Conditions

Letters are usually short, as they must sometimes fit in a limited space.[2]

Many newspapers require that letters to the editor be under a certain number of words, often 250 or 350 word limit, and may attach other conditions, such as prohibiting anonymous letters, letters that contain misinformation, are meant to libel someone, are obscene or in poor taste, or meant to resolve a personal conflict. In at least one case, a publication redefined its guidelines and use of the form, based on the evolving needs of the publication and the community it served.

Other frequent conditions include limiting writers to one published letter within a specified time period (often, one per 30 days) or limiting the publication of letters on controversial topics after a certain time period, especially if the debate takes an emotional toll on the involved parties. During an election season, editors often decline to print campaign-related letters a certain number of days before the election, especially if the writer raises new issues to which a candidate he opposes would have no time to reply.

Some editors will also decline to publish letters that have also been sent to other newspapers, especially competing newspapers.

History

LTEs always have been a feature of American newspapers. Much of the earliest news reports and commentaries published by early-American newspapers were delivered in the form of letters, and by the mid-18th century, LTEs were a dominant carrier of political and social discourse. Many influential essays about the role of government in matters such as personal freedoms and economic development took the form of letters — consider “Cato's Letters” or “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” which were widely reprinted in early American newspapers. Through the 1800s, LTEs were increasingly centralized near the editorials of newspapers, so that by the turn of the century LTEs had become permanent fixtures of the opinion pages.

Modern LTE forums are not much different from those earlier counterparts. A typical forum will include a half-dozen to a dozen letters (or excerpts from letters). The letters chosen for publication usually are only a sample of the total letters submitted, with larger-circulation publications running a much smaller percentage of submissions and small-circulation publications running nearly all of the relatively few letters they receive. Editors generally read all submissions, but in general most will automatically reject letters that include profanity, libelous statements, personal attacks against individuals or specific organizations, that are unreasonably long (most publications suggest length limits ranging from 200 to 500 words), or that are submitted anonymously.

The latter criterion is a fairly recent development in LTE management. Prior to the Cold War paranoia of the mid-20th century, anonymous LTEs were common; in fact, the right to write anonymously was central to the free-press/free-speech movement (as in the 1735 trial against John Peter Zenger, which started with an anonymous essay). By the 1970s, editors had developed strong negative attitudes toward anonymous letters, and by the end of the 20th century, about 94 percent of newspapers automatically rejected anonymous LTEs. Some newspapers in the 1980s and ‘90s created special anonymous opinion forums that allowed people to either record short verbal opinions via telephone (which were then transcribed and published) or send letters that were either unsigned or where the author used a pseudonym. Although many journalists derided the anonymous call-in forums as unethical (for instance, someone could make an unfounded opinion without worry of the consequences or having to back the comment up with hard facts), defenders argued that such forums upheld the free-press tradition of vigorous, uninhibited debate similar to that found in earlier newspapers.

Although primarily considered a function of print publications, LTEs also are present in electronic media. In broadcast journalism, LTEs have always been a semi-regular feature of 60 Minutes and the news programs of National Public Radio. LTE’s also are widespread on the Internet in various forms.

By the early 21st century, the Internet had become a delivery system for many LTEs via e-mail and news Web sites (in fact, after several envelopes containing a powder suspected to be anthrax were mailed to lawmakers and journalists, several news organizations announced they would only accept e-mail LTEs). Because the Internet broadly expanded the potential readership of editorials and opinion columns at small newspapers, their controversial editorials or columns could sometimes attract much more e-mail than they were used to handling — so much so that a few newspapers had their e-mail servers crash. Another Internet-borne problem is “astroturf,” or “fake grass-roots” letters that are posted on the Web sites to be copied and submitted as personal letters. “Astroturf” LTEs gained national attention in late 2003 when scores of published LTEs praising U.S. President George W. Bush had actually been written by the president’s campaign and posted on its Web site for supporters to copy. The practice also was used by business organizations, environmental-protection groups, and religious campaigns.

Although LTE management gets little attention in trade journals, one organization, the National Conference of Editorial Writers, often includes essays on LTE management in its newsletter, The Masthead, and at its annual meetings. Among the NCEW’s strongest champions for LTEs was Ronald D. Clark of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who wrote, “Consider letters as a barometer of how well (you are) engaging readers or viewers. The more you receive, the more you’re connecting. The fewer you receive, the stronger the sign that you’re putting the masses to sleep.”

On the other hand many editors will allow the publication of anonymous letters where the details of name and address of the author are not printed, but are disclosed to the editor. This can promote a debate of issues that are personal, contentious or embarrassing, yet are of importance to raise in a public debate.

Sometimes a letter to the editor in a local newspaper, such as the Dear IRS letter written by Ed Barnett to the Wichita Falls Times Record News in Wichita Falls, Texas, will end up receiving attention from the national media.[3]

Misrepresentation

Submitting a letter under a false name to shill in support or to criticize an opponent can have significant consequences. A Canadian example is Paul Reitsma, whose political career ended in scandal. After he signed a letter as "Warren Betanko" his local paper wrote a front-page story under the headline of "MLA Reitsma is a liar and we can prove it."

In 1966 Israel, the Herut Party of then opposition leader Menachem Begin was shaken by scandal when letters sharply attacking Begin, which had been published in major dailies, were proven to have authored by Begin's rivals for the party leadership and sent to the papers under various aliases and false names. As a result, the rivals were discredited and eventually expelled from the party, which helped buttress Begin's leadership position up to his eventually winning the 1977 general elections and becoming Prime Minister of Israel.

See also

References

  1. ^ Definition from Duke University's University Writing Program
  2. ^ Letters to the Editor: Having Your Say
  3. ^ 'Dear IRS' rant against taxes hits nerve, Chicago Sun-Times, March 9, 2009

External links


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