To our letter writers ...

March 18, 2009

One of the most valuable tasks that The Herald-Mail performs every day is to give readers a chance to express their opinions on this page.

It is a tradition that goes back to the American Revolution and the early days of the United States.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote that "The people are the only censors of their governors; and even their errors will keep these (leaders) to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty."

Like Jefferson, we realize that in the heat of passion, people will say or write things that are incorrect. And like Jefferson, we feel that although the people "may be led astray for a moment, they will soon correct themselves."

What we are asking today is that in the interest of full and fair debate, readers do all they can to make sure the information that they put in their letters is accurate - and help us verify it.


It means that on topics such as global warming or stem-cell research, it is not enough to write that "scientists say" that this or that is true. For a better letter and a more accurate newspaper, we need all writers to cite sources. We ask this so that if there is a claim that sounds too fantastic to be true, the editors can check it out.

That's why we ask readers to share their addresses and their daytime phone numbers. We need a way to contact you if we have some questions.

The reality is, however, that such letters tend to be put to the side, until an editor has a "spare moment." It would be better for letter-writers to cite those sources so that we don't have to call you.

In asking these things, we are not implying that we are smarter than our readers. We know better than that; in many cases they know more about the topic under discussion than we do.

What we are asking is that they help us improve the quality of the debate, and in turn, the quality of the newspaper, by citing their sources.

Of course, there is a difference between opinions and accounts of the facts. The example we have long used goes like this: If you say that Councilman Smith has a pleasing voice, that's an opinion, because someone else might feel that his voice is harsh or grating.

If, however, you say that Councilman Smith kicks his dog every night, that's an account of the facts that we would need to verify. To do that, we would need to hear, at the very least, from a disinterested eyewitness. Even better, we'd like to see a cruelty citation from the humane society.

You like country music; somebody else doesn't. That's an opinion. But if you say that a country music performer is a deadbeat dad, that's either true or false. Before we publish a letter saying that, we need clear proof.

Thanks in advance for all of your help.

Do you have a comment on this issue? You may post it online or send it to Opinion Page, The Herald-Mail, 100 Summit Ave., Hagerstown, MD 21740. Comments may be e-mailed to Please indicate whether your comment is for publication or just for our information.

The Herald-Mail Articles