The Hoosier State Press Association’s Freedom of Information Committee was asked to examine newspaper policies across the state concerning letters to the editor.
A survey of Indiana editors collected responses representing 32 newspapers.
Based on this information, the FOI Committee makes the following recommendation to Indiana newspapers regarding letters to the editor:
Each Indiana newspaper should consider, if it doesn’t already have one, a written policy concerning letters to the editor.
Such a policy will give staff members guidance in how to treat letters submitted by the public. The public in turn will have an understanding of parameters for submitting a letter and reassurance that the newspaper staff will treat all letters equally.
The Freedom of Information Committee believes all newspapers should have the autonomy to write their own policies.
Points that follow are intended to aid newspapers that are writing a new policy or reviewing an existing policy rather than dictate any decisions for the newspaper.
The FOI Committee believes a letters to the editor policy should address the following points:
Most newspapers have word limits on the length of letters that will be accepted. The survey showed limits ranging from 200 to 800 words. Five newspapers said they have no word limits. If a letter writer can’t reduce his or her submission to meet the limit set, some newspapers may run the submission as a guest column rather than a letter to the editor.
Most newspapers do not allow anonymous letters. The two newspapers that do allow anonymity required verification of the author before the letter could be published.
All newspapers edit letters to correct spelling and grammar issues. Nearly all newspapers try to have a discussion with the author if the submission needs to be shortened or sections rewritten.
If an editor makes changes to the letter, most newspapers share the edited version with the author before the letter is published.
Acceptance of handwritten letters
All newspapers surveyed accept handwritten letters.
Most newspapers prefer original letters by the author, rather than a signed form letter disseminated by an organization asking individuals to attempt to get the letter published locally. A few newspapers would run the form letter if the editor felt its relevance to local readers called for publication.
Eighteen newspapers will publish open letters addressed to public officials. Most newspapers do not publish open letters directed toward private individuals. Nine newspapers in the survey do not allow any open letters and ask that all letters be directed to the editor or the public.
A concise and precise policy will bring consistency to how your newspaper treats letters to the editor and reassure readers that they all will be treated equally if they decide to share their opinion with the newspaper.
Questions concerning these recommendations may be addressed to HSPA Executive Director and General Counsel Steve Key at firstname.lastname@example.org or FOI Committee chair Scarlett Syse at email@example.com.