Since last winter’s Convoy into Ottawa, the Journal has received more letters to the editor than usual. Several referred to our reporting of the Convoy and government reaction. Our columnists also commented, but columns are the considered opinions of those columnists, not statements from the Journal. Most letters lumped both, as if the writers didn’t appreciate the difference between “opinion pieces” and news reports or interviews. Letters to the editor, themselves, are opinion pieces.
A local newspaper, like the Journal, is a community asset which links members and serves the interests of the community. So thank you, all letter-writers! We improve with reader feedback.
However these new letters are different than the half-dozen which normally arrive, every issue. Their tone is aggressive and hostile, with no interest in pursuing the facts of any case.
As Journal readers know, letters to the editor are your opportunity to speak directly to the Journal’s 15,000 plus readers. Letters also speak to the Journal’s editor and management. This is key to the democratic process and essential if we are to hold our media to minimal standards of honesty and to using fact-based evidence for any assertions. Here is where these latest letters run into problems.
Our policy is to avoid disinformation and rumour-mongering in our reporting. We seek multiple sides of issues, as best we can. We cite and name our sources, as best we can. We are a community effort, not a corporate entity with wide resources. But the Journal cannot be used as a waste can by those using social media to do their thinking for them. Letters to the editor must also follow these goals. Not all do, and these usually accuse the newspaper of doing exactly what they are doing in their letters — depending on fake news, unattributed quotes, and unverifiable sources.
Newspapers edit their letters — for typos, spelling errors, irrelevant comments, and repetitions. Space is valuable, so if we can squeeze in one extra letter, we will do so.
Today’s new letters stray even further from democratic norms. Anonymous letters, often from encrypted sites, means we cannot identify the writer or their location, and we cannot reply to them, asking for clarification or for evidence for claims made in a letter. Encrypted sites and pseudonyms are to avoid accountability. These correspondents expect that we must publish any sort of accusation and “catastrophization” of events … just because they say so.
We do run anonymous letters, on request — if the writer explains why their names must be withheld. There must be reasons, since anonymity in general is not the sign of a healthy society; it is a sign of fear or of aggression.
There used to be a concept of “good faith” which motivated citizens in their dealings with their communities, including letters to the local media. Should we really end “acting in good faith”?