Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable Society: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
How to Write Letters to the Media
Accuracy In Media*
Secrets of Writing a Publishable Letter
“To The Editor....”
How often do you see a TV newscast or a newspaper article that is reported in such distorted fashion that truth is knocked senseless and left by the wayside? Do you sometimes fell that the media have totally abandoned reality in the way they report the news?
Well, what are you going to do about it? Sit and fume or take pen in hand and let the people who run the media know that you are disgusted with distortions, inaccuracies and the intrusion of reportial opinion into supposedly “objective” news accounts?
The purpose of this booklet is to give you suggestions that Accuracy In Media has developed over the years on how to write an effective letter to the editor that will be published. Those last words are italicized for a reason: regardless of the merit of the letter you write, unless it is printed in the paper, or given serious attention by the media person to whom it is addressed, you are wasting your time and your postage.
AIM firmly believes in the power of the letter to the editor. Indeed, AIM had its genesis in such letters which founder Reed Irvine wrote to the media in the 1950s and 1960s, as a private citizen and as a member of a public affairs luncheon group. A friend of Mr. Irvine, Wilson C. “Chuck” Lucom, eventually suggested that the letters might carry more clout if they were on the letterhead of a media watchdog group, and in 1969 he paid the $200 necessary to incorporate Accuracy In Media, Inc. and get us started as a national membership group. The rest, as they say, is history.
Readership polls consistently show that letters to the editor are one of the better-read features of a newspaper.
Readers enjoy controversy. Having a citizen take arms against an editor (even if in written form) spices up the day’s paper. Being given countering information and views instructs citizens that they should not take the media at face value.
Letters have several purposes (other than permitting you to blow off excessive steam). Let me summarize the two major purposes of letters:
--For publication. Your purpose is to provide a printable rebuttal to an error or a misinterpretation of a story that has appeared in the paper or on a telecast. Here conciseness and directness are paramount, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
--For information. Your purpose is to give the editor or TV producer facts, which can be, used in subsequent news reports. These letters, of necessity, will be longer than those intended for publication. (Of course, even an “information” letter can be supplemented by a shorter version intended for publication.)
Accuracy In Media’s consultant on letter writing is a remarkable Ohioan named Walter Seifert, professor emeritus of journalism at Ohio State University. Mr. Seifert’s Herculean feat of having more than 1600 letters published earned him an entry in the 1990 edition of the Guinness Book of World of Records. Although the category has been discontinued, Aim’s good friend Walt is now at what he calls “the 4600 mark and counting.”
Here are Walt Seifert’s rules for writing an effective letter to the editor.
1- Be legible. Type your letter, double-spaced preferably. If you write it by hand, make sure the editor can read it. Check your spelling, and use proper grammar.
2- Be timely. React at once; if you wait a week or so, the issue that upset you might be long past. But don’t dash of to the post office immediately upon writing your letter.
Read it a few hours later to insure that you have expressed yourself well, and in language you really wish to see in print. In other words, “cool off.” Your subconscious might also inspire second thoughts of better words.
3- Be brief. Walt Seifert says it well: “If you can’t sell’em in three paragraphs, you won’t in 20.” Identify your complaint in the first sentence if possible, so that the editor knows why you are writing (“As your reporter Jane Doe wrote on May 23...”) Then expand on your theme, using a factual source to make your case, i.e., The AIM Report or The New York Times. Many papers will require that you confirm the source, so anticipate their question by enclosing a copy of the article making your case. Many papers impose word limitations on letters. Abide by them, for an editor will enforce them (and especially if he disagrees with you; “the other side,” of course, might be permitted a longer say). Meredith Oakley, who runs the letters column of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, in Little Rock, notes that her paper’s 250-word limit comes out to about seven column inches of type, enough to tell most stories.
4- Be simple. Most readers don’t like long sentences or fancy words. Keep paragraphs short. Use punchy words.
5- Be constructive. If you condemn, suggest a better way. If you indulge in abusive language or name calling, you will be less effective. There is nothing wrong with humor. You might suggest, for instance, “Your columnist’s knowledge of Russian history dates back perhaps a week in time,” but don’t write that “Columnist Roe is dumber than an egg-sucking dog.”
6- Give complete information. Most papers require verification that you actually wrote the letter, which arrived in their office, so give your address and both work and home phone numbers. Some editors, but not all, will do you the courtesy of checking with you when they make deletions for space so that your meaning is not distorted. But don’t count on the latter point —an even further reason to abide by the word limit.
7- Ask for a response. If the newspaper or TV station has confidence in the accuracy and fairness of the report you challenge, they should happy to set you straight. A polite request for a reply shows that you are serious about your complaint, and that you want it answered. If the media outlet does not respond in a reasonable period, you have good reason to write a stronger version of your letter.
8- Send a copy of your letter to the reporter or writer about whom you are complaining. Many papers will send the letter to the reporter as a matter of routine. But common courtesy is also involved. Your mother probably taught you not to talk about people behind their back. So let the reporter know what you are saying about him, and directly, rather than relying on an intra-office forwarding.
9- Keep copies of all letters you write. Many papers have a bias against publishing letters from readers who do not agree with their editorial policy, or who criticize their news coverage. If you can document that your letters are consistently being “spiked” —journalistic lingo for killed— you will have direct ammunition to use in a direct confrontation with the publisher (or even advertisers).
10-If you send in your letter by Fax, use discretion and common sense. Try to keep a one or two-page limit. Generally, it is safer to mail correspondence to the media to insure that it reaches the proper person.
11-And, finally share your complaints or comments with Accuracy In Media, Inc. Send a copy to us at AIM, 4455 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20008. [Please send Minnesota letters and copies of any media grievance to MFS.]
These rules won’t guarantee publication, but they’ll certainly increase your chances of publication.
But, you might ask, “I have all these complaints, but I can’t write worth a hoot.” So, on behalf of Accuracy In Media, Inc., an offer: if you have something you wish to get off your chest, send the information to our office, along with supporting documentation concerning the point you wish to make. Within reason, we’ll draft a letter which you can use as you see fit. Our offer is not without bounds: for instance, don’t expect us to ghost any letters advocating the violent overthrow of the government, or cannibalism.
Enclose a stamped and self-addressed envelope so that we can get the draft back to you promptly.
Now, as is said among folks who make their living from the printed word.
An acknowledgement: Special
thanks go to Walt Seifert for his rules.
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