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Letters to editor are important part of paper

By BY LAUREN HIGHTOWER-EMERSON
March 22, 2014 at 4 p.m.
Updated March 21, 2014 at 10:22 p.m.

Lauren Hightower-Emerson

As a community newspaper, the Victoria Advocate is committed to offering a strong, reliable product that informs and educates readers in our region. We always try to ensure that our content is accurate and encourage feedback from our readers.

One way that readers can offer feedback is through letters to the editor. These are purely reader-submitted items and are the opinions of our readers on any topic under the sun. We have three classifications for letters to the editor: thank yous, political endorsements and everything else. Thank yous are typically limited to 150 words, but we allow some flexibility if there is a good narrative involved. Political endorsement letters may be 200 words at maximum. All other letters are limited to 350 words.

Recently, there have been a few letters that some would call inflammatory. Whether the topic is faith or politics, a few of our online commenters have begun to question why we allow certain letters to be published. We value the opinions of our readers, and the letters to the editor are our free service that allows readers a place to speak their minds. But as with all other things, we have some simple guidelines that we ask all letter writers to follow.

First and foremost, we require that every letter be the unique, original work of the letter writer. We do not run template letters submitted from political groups or the Facebook equivalent of chain letters. When readers submit their letters to us and sign their names, that is a statement that this is their own work, not content from another source.

We try to maintain a clear level of common courtesy in our letters column. We do not allow name calling or insults directed at private citizens or other letter writers. Public officials, such as celebrities, the president or any other public figure, including local politicians, are not given quite as much deference. These people chose to put themselves in the public eye and so must face both the criticism and praise that comes with that choice. But private citizens who are brave enough to sign their names to a letter to the editor are given a certain measure of respect. We typically do not allow other letters to criticize a person by name but do specify which opinion is being disagreed with. By the same token, we do not run consumer complaint letters against privately owned companies, but we do allow letters criticizing government services, utilities and other public organizations that have a clear duty to serve residents. We also do not allow letters that contain racist or sexist comments.

Sometimes, we receive letters that contain a lot of statistics or other information. In those cases, we try to verify the information contained in the letter and ask the writer to identify their sources if they did not already do so in the letter.

In cases in which the content of the letter is considered objectionable, the editorial board typically examines these letters before deciding to run or reject them. It is our hope that we can publish every letter we receive, but that is not always possible. Oftentimes, we will work with the letter writer to make any major changes to the letter's content or message. All letters are also edited for grammar and Associated Press style to ensure that readers can understand the writer's message.

Letters that are considered objectionable on one or the other side of the political spectrum, especially those touching on social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, sometimes raise questions about why they should be published. We see this as part of the service that the newspaper provides to the community. Letters to the editor serve as a sounding board for people with different opinions to share their ideas. Some may argue that allowing these opinions to be published gives them credence or credibility, but we trust our readers to know their own minds and speak out when something is out of line, as we have seen happen often on our website. It would be a greater disservice if we hid these opinions from our readers and did not acknowledge that these beliefs exist in our community.

Our letters to the editor segment is one of the most consistently read segments of our newspaper, and we are grateful for all of our readers who take the time to share their opinions with us every day. Above all, our newspaper is meant to be a public forum for information, discussion and awareness. We hope we are fulfilling that role well, and we look forward to hearing from our readers every day.

Lauren Hightower-Emerson is the community conversation editor of the Victoria Advocate. Readers can contact her with questions or comments at 361-580-6590 or by email at lhightower@vicad.com.

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