Should content of ‘letters to editor’ be leaked prior to publication?

The issue:

A recently published article drew fire from several readers challenging factual claims. Before the next issue went to press, the editorial director shared the three letters of criticism with the people who had been featured in the allegedly erroneous article.

In turn, those people were allowed “to submit their own letter in answer to ours, which was directed very pointedly at the three letter writers,” ASBPE’s ethics committee was informed. The rebuttal did nothing to support the claims being challenged. The letter “was so lengthy as to actually take up the same amount of space as our other three letters combined,” said the source of this guidance request.

The editorial director prefaced all of the letters posted with an apology, admitting that he should have checked a known database. “Had I exercised greater due diligence, this unfortunate controversy might not ensued,” he said.

Committee response:

The editor who reported the controversy asked whether “there were rules of etiquette” pertaining to Letters to the Editor. Right now, “our ethics code does not specifically address treatment of the issue,” said previous committee chairman Howard Rauch. “But perhaps the omission is an oversight worth correcting.” Rauch invited committee members to weigh in on the situation. Following are excerpts from their responses:

Art Aiello, managing editor, Diesel Progress: “A “Letters to the Editor” section in any magazine serves to share with readers opinions from other readers that might support or oppose published material. The publication of such letters should be done in the spirit of transparency and with the goals of both fostering discussion as well as holding the magazine to high editorial standards.

By sharing – in advance of the publication – with those whom the letters were challenging, and by subsequently publishing a rebuttal to those challenging letters in the same issue, the editor gave unfair advantage to those being challenged. Readers were not given the opportunity to judge the letters of complaint on their own merit, apart from any additional comment. Furthermore, by publishing the letters and their rebuttal in the same forum – and allegedly giving the rebuttal more ‘real estate’ on the page than the opposing letters themselves – the editor has telegraphed to readers  that viewpoints that oppose editorial content are not generally welcome.

When posting all the above information, the editor should have added a brief note after the letters stating that when presented with the opposition letters, the subjects of the original article said that they stood by their story. This would have avoided giving those subjects additional editorial space while showing that the editors were trying to get at the truth.”

Beth Campbell, chief content officer, Advantage Business Media: “Unlike strong editorial content, there is no obligation for a publisher to portray a balanced viewpoint with Letters to the Editor departments. Instead, choose and publish responses/viewpoints representative of volume received. That said, people with a gripe tend to have more bandwidth and incentive to weigh in.

What happened to third party, independent thinkers and decision makers? Readers should not be pitted against one another. If that is the goal, publishers should host a roundtable discussion. At least that is honest.

Fact-checking verification was available at two distinct times, yet not leveraged. This puzzles me, as integrity is the cornerstone of good journalism. Poor choices like this often lead to trade publications being called ‘rags.’

Before the editor posted his mea culpa apology, he should have verified the ‘facts’ with three independent sources of record. Registry records are subject to human error, as well.”

Robin Sherman, ASBPE director & principal, Editorial Design Services: “The Letters to the Editor issue is one I have never been able to resolve myself – whether to let article authors see letter writers’ responses before publishing so the former can respond. I have tended to like the idea of a ‘pro’ and ‘con’ between a feature article writer and a letter writer in the same issue of the magazine. I think it can be compelling content and reader friendly (you don’t have to wait two issues down the road when everyone has forgotten about it). But I would not do this unless each party agreed. If one party did not agree, the next step depends on what each party wanted.

Moreover, if I wrote an article for a magazine and someone wrote a letter to the editor critiquing it, I’d demand to respond to the letter writer in the same issue in which the letter to the editor would be published. My response might be a simple ‘I stand by my article’ or a formal letter to the editor. I think those two types of responses would be the only types that I should be offered by the editor. As a reader, I want to see the feature writer’s response to the initial letter to the editor so that I can judge the article’s validity.”

Howard Rauch, president, Editorial Solutions, Inc.: “Perhaps worthwhile is reminding readers of this advisory that preservation of highest quality is a key ethical mandate that should always be applied to editorial columns. What columnists often overlook is the need to write a solutions-oriented opinion piece rather than expounding on a known challenge and letting it go at that. When I judge editorial columns in contests sponsored by my clients or association competitions, I also take issue with limited value headlines. ‘Limited value’ occurs when a headline relies on three or four words to establish relevancy. Another quality detractor is the anecdotal intro that takes 50 or more words to arrive at a key point reflecting column take-away value.”

Committee chairman’s note: If  you have the time, please suggest wording of a possible ethics code advisory addressing editorial column ethical practice. Questions you might include in your response: (1) Should critical letters addressed to the editor be reviewed by parties who provided original information prior to publication? (2) Under what circumstances should letters to the editor be fact-checked prior to publication? (3) Under what circumstances, if any, should letters to editor submissions not be published? How would the latter be treated differently? Please send input to ethics@asbpe.org.