Though it takes up a relatively small amount of real estate, a newspaper or magazine’s letters to the editor section punches far above its weight when it comes to errors and corrections.
Just over the past couple of years, there have been plagiarized letters that made it into print, letters that included egregious factual errors and accusations, letters that were attributed to the wrong person, and letters that were significantly altered due to sloppy editing. Last month alone there were two notable letter errors.
The Press of Christchurch, New Zealand published a correction to a rather scandalous December letter to the editor:
On December 6 we published a letter signed by A J Bennett that suggested Mayor Parker was a friend of David Henderson and that the Mayor had been photographed brandishing dildoes and “doobies” or marijuana joints. Through his legal counsel Mayor Parker has confirmed, and we accept, that he is not and never has been a personal friend of Mr Henderson and has never been photographed holding a dildo or a doobie. It was, in fact, a thin raffle ticket. The Press apologises to Mayor Parker for any embarrassment resulting from publishing those errors.
Also in December, The New York Times published an editor’s note admitting that it had published a hoax letter:
Earlier this morning, we posted a letter that carried the name of Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, sharply criticizing Caroline Kennedy.
This letter was a fake. It should not have been published.
Doing so violated both our standards and our procedures in publishing signed letters from our readers.
We have already expressed our regrets to Mr. Delanoë’s office and we are now doing the same to you, our readers.
This letter, like most Letters to the Editor these days, arrived by email. It is Times procedure to verify the authenticity of every letter. In this case, our staff sent an edited version of the letter to the sender of the email and did not hear back. At that point, we should have contacted Mr. Delanoë’s office to verify that he had, in fact, written to us.
We did not do that. Without that verification, the letter should never have been printed.
We are reviewing our procedures for verifying letters to avoid such an incident in the future.
The Times note reveals the basics of the verification process used at most publications. Letters arrive and are sifted through. The lucky ones that will be considered for publication are usually edited, given a quick check for glaring factual errors, and sent back to the submitter for approval. Most publications also contact a letter writer by phone to verify their identity and ask a few other questions. (For an example of the back-and-forth that occasionally takes place between letter writer and editor, read this 2006 article on CJR.)
Thomas Feyer, the Times’s letters editor, explained the need for a phone call back in 2004:
We reserve the right to edit for space, clarity, civility and accuracy, and we send you the edited version before publication. If your letter is selected, we will try to reach you and ask a few questions: Did you write the letter? (We’re not amused by impostors.) Is it exclusive to The Times? (It should be.) Do you have a connection to the subject you’re writing about? (Readers should be able to judge your credibility and motivation.)
Obviously, the Times’s mistake regarding the Delanoë letter was that it failed to follow its own policy regarding the need for a phone call. In his treatise on letters, Feyer also addressed the issue of fact checking:
Letter writers, to use a well-worn phrase, are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. There is, of course, a broad gray area in which hard fact and heartfelt opinion commingle. But we do try to verify the facts, either checking them ourselves or asking writers for sources of information. Sometimes we goof, and then we publish corrections.