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A few things readers who send letters need to know

August 24, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

Every now and then, it's good to remind letter-writers of a few of the rules that we have to ensure that the debate remains civil and that writers and The Herald-Mail stay out of legal trouble. Here are a few:

- A long time ago, we asked readers who never wrote to tell us why they didn't share their thoughts in print. The answer: Because they didn't want to be called "stupid" or "idiot" in the newspaper.

And so we began asking those replying to other writers to argue about ideas without getting personal.

Recently someone submitted a letter referring to "right-wing nut jobs." When I replied that such would be unacceptable, the letter came back referring to that same group as "right-wing wackos."

We're not going to print such language. This is America, not Bosnia, and we are not yet so factionalized that we have to deny any respect to those with whom we disagree.

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Think of it this way: If making your point requires getting personal, perhaps your argument wasn't that strong to begin with. Most letter-writers are smart enough to debate without getting nasty in the process.

- There is a difference between an opinion and an account of the facts. Opinions we can print, but not accounts of the facts that we can't verify.

Here's the example I often use: If I say that County Commissioner Joe Smith has a voice that grates on my ear, that's an opinion, because what irritates me may seem perfectly fine to you.

If, however, I say that Commissioner Smith kicks his dog every day, before we print a letter stating that, we're going to need a disinterested witness, or preferably, a citation of the commissioner by the Humane Society.

- The same goes for disputes between retailers and consumers. In the past year, I've had people write about items such as an automobile that, seemed, from their description, like the proverbial "lemon."

But unless a civil suit is filed on such a matter, bringing it into the public record, such things are private disputes.

I suggest that people involved in such matters seek help from the consumer protection division of the attorney general's office in whichever state they live. Sometimes the prospect of spending a lot of time dealing with state officials is enough to push the merchant or dealer to find a way to settle the claim.

- We need all writers' names, addresses and phone numbers on letters to the editor, even though we will only print your name and the general area in which you live.

That information allows us to check with you, should something be unclear. On a controversial letter, we will also check to make sure that someone else isn't signing your name to their argument.

- If we have to send your letter to our legal counsel for review, in most cases some simple revisions can produce something that we can publish. We do this because we are not lawyers and it is for your protection as well as ours.

- Research indicates that shorter letters are better read than long ones, which is why we ask readers not to exceed 250 words. Printing too many long letters means other letter-writers must wait longer to see their opinions in print.

- After several back-and-forth letters on a topic, we reserve the right to declare that there is nothing new left to say and that we're going to move on to other issues.

We have a limited amount of space and after a thorough discussion over, for example, which version of the Ten Commandments is the best one, we're going to move on.

- If a political group or another kind of organization asks you to send us a form letter, our rule is this: The first one will be printed, while others will be returned with the notation that if the writer can express that same thought in his or her own words, we'll use it.

Political organizations are becoming more sophisticated, setting up Web sites to which readers can go and select certain phrases for inclusion in their our letters.

The National Conference of Editorial Writers calls this stuff "turf" and encourages editors to ask readers to submit letters that they've written themselves.

That does not mean that research isn't allowed. Just please use your own words and identify your sources when necessary.

- Unrelated to the above, but important nonetheless: In our recent letter-writing contest involving the giveaway of U.S. flags, if you were identified as a winner and can arrange to pick up your flag, that would be helpful. If not, I'll get it to you eventually, but making arrangements to do that takes time.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail./i>

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