A recent Letter to the Editor has created quite a stir, and has drawn at least a half-dozen letters in reply. That’s enough buzz that I thought it would be a good time to devote a “Pub Chat” to the subject of what we often refer to as LTEs.
Letters have been a feature of American newspapers almost since the first ones began rolling off presses in the early 1700s. No less a publisher than Benjamin Franklin ramped up the use of opinion content, both from readers and from editorial content he penned himself, to foster political and social discourse.
At the Finger Lakes Times we are committed to continuing that tradition of initiating and allowing for conversation in the community, and we are indebted to an engaged readership base, which often leads to as many as two-dozen LTEs “in the hopper,” as I like to say, or ready to go. They represent a wide range of perspectives on any number of issues from City Council to our lakes and environment to national and international topics — even to our coverage of local events.
We don’t run every single letter we receive, but I’d say we probably run close to 90% of them. We also try to run them in the order in which they are received, although if they are particularly timely, we may bump some up at times to get them in sooner. We also try to space out more frequent writers by a month or so. It’s not an exact science, but we try to be as fair to the writers as possible. Because we generally only have space to run one or two letters a day, it can take a week or more at times for some letters to appear in the FLT, and we always appreciate writers’ patience.
The LTE that I referred to at the top of this column considered reasons why many folks have chosen not to get the Covid-19 vaccine. It’s a contentious issue nationally and also in our four-county circulation area, where, in two counties — Seneca and Yates — only 50% of people are fully vaccinated, while in two others — Ontario (67%) and Wayne (62%) — the numbers are higher. That, according to a website called nydatabases.com.
The writer of the letter in question also listed a number of links as to where information was collected. Managing Editor Alan Brignall and I checked out the links to verify that they existed, which they most certainly did. However, unlike The New York Times, which employs a team of fact-checkers, we are limited with our small staff as to how deeply we can vet the information that those links provided.
We debated whether to run the letter at all, and what won the day, in our view, were the writer’s credentials — a nurse practitioner and retired army lieutenant colonel.
We published it, and the reaction was swift … and pointed. With a lot of the criticism aimed directly at us.
“The only thing more upsetting than (the) letter is that the Finger Lakes Times chose to print the misinformation and disseminate it in our communities without verification,” one person wrote.
“As a physician visiting your area, I was deeply disappointed in the Finger Lakes Times’ decision to print a letter to the editor in support of people’s decisions not to get the Covid-19 vaccine,” wrote another.
“I wish the FLT had sufficient staff to fact-check all letters to the editor, including this one,” said another, to which I wanted to reply, “So do we, believe me.”
We walk something of a fine line in that we absolutely do not want to print erroneous or false information, especially when it comes to public health, but at the same time, we do want to be the mouthpiece for a variety of opinions.
Interesting to me, also, was that on the very day the letter ran, the “NBC Nightly News” carried an interview with two longtime healthcare professionals who refused to be vaccinated; their reasons included many of the same ones as our letter writer. No one said whether the professionals were wrong or right in their opinions, and I didn’t hear of any backlash against NBC for airing the segment; they simply let viewers decide how to interpret what they saw and heard.
That is not meant to justify our running the letter or to say that we were right in doing so. It is meant to say that there often are many sides to an issue, and in my view, the more we can acknowledge that and understand all the sides, the better chance we have of getting closer to a consensus. On anything.
While most of the responses to the LTE in question say it is rife with misinformation and falsehoods, the reply that is most important, in my view, to this conversation was the first one we ran. It came from another medical professional who, point by point, explained why the letter was off base — and provided links as well (that we also checked out) which refuted its claims.
That leads me to something else: Even if we are unable to fact-check a letter or opinion piece as thoroughly as we would like, we have faith that our engaged readers will write in to set the record straight or provide a different view of things.
It’s not easy — surely not as easy as in Benjamin Franklin’s day, when he was even known to write letters to his own paper using a fake name! (And yes, by the way, we do attempt to verify our writers’ identities). But it’s why, beginning Monday, you will start seeing this disclaimer at the top of our LTE column:
Letters are the opinion of the writer and not the Finger Lakes Times. The Times’ editorial board does its best to verify the existence of any sources and the validity of information referenced in a letter. We do not reject a letter simply on the grounds that our editorial board disagrees with a writer’s stance, but we reserve the right to withhold any letter from publication.
If I’ve missed something or if you have any other questions about Letters to the Editor, shoot me a note.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my favorite Benjamin Franklin quote: “Wish not so much to live long as to live well.” — Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1738
I think that’s an opinion that doesn’t need to be vetted.