Editorial: Letters to the editor pose tricky issues

We’re sometimes asked at The Beachcomber why we do what we do, and one of the categories that seems to particularly befuddle readers is our letters to the editor column.

Readers sometimes take issue with letters we opt to print. Those Islanders whose missives are declined, meanwhile, are, not surprisingly, upset.

It’s particularly tricky at a community newspaper, where letters don’t hold that same degree of anonymity as they do in a large metropolitan daily. We often know the letter writers; indeed, every now and then, they’re writing to make a point (and not a nice one) about someone else in the community.

The dilemma for The Beachcomber is this: We want to give everyone who wants one a voice, which is what the letters column does, but not provide such a wide-open arena that it becomes a forum for taking pot-shots at one another.

We also don’t want to get sued.

There’s yet another layer of complexity. While we review letters and sometimes edit them, we play a very limited role in the paper’s online world of reader response — where people can comment freely on stories, editorials and letters, sometimes in not particularly friendly terms.

Why the distinction? Because we’re publishing the paper — actively creating it. But in this brave new world of online journalism, which is still evolving and where the norms are in flux, thought leaders — from publishers to First Amendment lawyers — see the situation differently. There, they say, we’re not publishing a paper but simply providing a forum. We’re not publishers, but hosts.

It’s like the difference between building a structure (the newspaper) or opening up a conference room (the online presence) where others can gather and hold forth. Much thought is put into the construction of a building, but once one has built a public conference room, the host rarely controls the discussions that take place there.

So how does one get letters printed in The Beachcomber?

First, there are the rules that we state at the top of this page every week: A letter can’t be more than 300 words; it can’t cross a line into mean-spiritedness or libelous attacks, and we accept only one letter per month from a letter-writer.

After that, there’s the editor’s discretion. We try to keep the forum wide open, but every now and then, a letter’s tone or content crosses a line. It’s a fluid line and one we can’t put into simple terms. It may be that we’re familiar enough with an issue to know the letter contains information that is patently false. Or that we believe the paper is being used in a way that seems inappropriate to us. But we use as much restraint as we can; we err on the side of publishing.

So please continue to write us. Trust that we’ll catch those errant apostrophes. And know that our letters to the editor column is a public forum to value and respect.

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