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Doug's Diggings: Editing letters to the editor can be challenging

Letters to the editor present both interesting opportunities and interesting challenges.

A recent letter from a Hudson High School student named Anthony Gilbert brought the issue of letters back to the front burner.

Letters are a unique part of every newspaper. They give citizens an opportunity to express their thoughts and ideas to a fairly large audience -- this is a good thing.

Unfortunately, there is often confusion as to what is a newspaper's responsibility when it comes to running letters.

First and foremost, a newspaper has the right to refuse any letter. Daily papers do it all the time, publishing only a fraction of the letters they receive.

At the Star-Observer, we have always prided ourselves in running virtually every letter we receive. Of course, there are exceptions -- for instance, a slanderous or libelous letter attacking a private citizen, or a letter that clearly has wrong information.

Most opinions, however, are fair game for letters to the editor.

That said, keep in mind that editing a page that contains letters to the editor is not a perfect science. There are often letters that arrive with information that causes us to ponder about publishing a letter. Usually it's a more prevalent issue in newspaper editions that are leading up to an election. We're dealing with many charges and counter-charges.

Keep in mind, however, that people running for public office are no longer private citizens -- libel and slander is essentially eliminated from the equation when you're talking about public figures. But some of the letters still tax our decision-making powers. That is why we always have a rule before an election that no new issues can be raised in the last newspaper before an election -- plenty of writers attempt to test that rule!

A Pierce County politician recently said a letter not published in the River Falls Journal cost him the election!

The Anthony Gilbert letter, however, came out of the blue. But, as we looked at his letter, we decided he was expressing his opinion. I think everyone who read the letter at the newspaper office thought it was a flawed opinion, but it represented an opinion.

The line that triggered most of the problem was at the end of the letter when he said: I feel like anyone who isn't a white, mid- or upper-class Christian should just move out of America!

I called Gilbert; first, to make sure he actually wrote the letter; and, second, to make sure he really wanted it to run in the newspaper because of the potential volatile nature of the last sentence. He assured me he wanted the letter to be published.

Another factor that entered into this odd situation is that I recognized that the Star-Observer was receiving a fair amount of letters that appeared to be written by high school students. As it turns out, Gilbert is a high school student, but we did not know that at the time -- nor did it matter.

A few weeks ago I called Principal Ed Lucas and he was not aware of any particular high school assignment. But that would not be unusual. A principal would not be aware of every assignment in every class.

We found out later that most of the letters to the editor from high school students were part of a class exercise. Hudson High School teachers Toni Bendlin and Laura Johnson teach a class titled "Writing for Media." They have covered many aspects of newspaper writing during the year and when it came to letters to the editor they guided students to pick a topic and build an argument. The letters were submitted to the teachers who suggested that students send the letters to the Star-Observer and if it were to be published, students could earn extra credit (they didn't realize that we publish nearly all letters).

That was the case for most letters -- NOT the Antony Gilbert letter. He is in the class, but the letter sent to the Star-Observer was never submitted as part of the class assignment and both teachers told me it was never reviewed by them. He may have gotten the idea in class, but did not submit the published letter to the teachers -- it was sent directly to the newspaper by Gilbert himself.

As far as the newspaper is concerned, we don't care where the letter originated.

As we wrote in an editor's note last week, we assume that letters sent and labeled "Letter to the Editor" are intended for publication and we cannot always differentiate the age or motivation of the letter writer. We welcome letters from all readers.

School officials, however, wanted readers to understand that the Gilbert letter was not published at the urging of any teachers or the school district.

A week or two after the letter was published, another Anthony Gilbert letter arrived at the Star-Observer which was not published -- the opinion was similar to his first letter and we figured he had already had his "15 minutes of fame."

The other unusual thing that occurred with the Gilbert letter is that several readers were critical of the Star-Observer for publishing the letter. In most cases, readers are upset toward the person who writes a letter.

One reader said we should have recognized that it was "satirical." Several said we should apologize for running the letter. Another wrote "Your (Star-Observer) lack of professionalism damaged the reputation of a teenager just doing his homework."

As we said above, the job of editing letters is tough enough. If we have to begin sorting through a writer's "true intentions," we will have to become mind readers.

We can't know every writer's exact intention, we can't interpret every double entendres, decipher cynicism from satire, anticipate how one person might interpret vs. another.

Generally speaking, most letters are published and that's why letters to the editor land on the "opinion page." I often disagree with individual letters, but I'll be the first in line to defend a person's right to express an opinion.