Letter Imperfect

A better strategy for verifying letters to the editor

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.

Those goofs and corrections range from the amusing to egregious. Sometimes, the names of letter writers are inadvertently switched (from the Arizona Daily Star):

The letter to the editor “Human body not an example” Wednesday on B7 was written by Robert H. Tucker of Tucson. It was not written by Garland E. Twitty of Marana and it is not his viewpoint.

Other times, errors are introduced in editing (San Francisco Chronicle):

Because of an editing error, a letter by Hal Rowland on Sept. 22 read “yellow citizens” when it should have read “fellow citizens.”

False accusations are made (Hamilton Spectator):

A Dec. 4 letter to the editor described Gary McHale in a way that was not accurate. The Hamilton Spectator withdraws any suggestion that Mr. McHale has perpetrated violence in his activities at Caledonia. The Hamilton Spectator apologizes for the error.

Plagiarism is committed (The New York Times):

On Aug. 7, we published a letter from Zachary Townsend, a student at Brown University and a columnist for the student newspaper, about Japan’s role in sex slavery in World War II, and slavery in the world today. We have now learned that the letter included material taken without attribution from an article in the November/December 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, “The New Global Slave Trade,” by Ethan B. Kapstein.

The student newspaper, The Brown Daily Herald, said in an editors’ note on Monday that it had discovered after a review that several of Mr. Townsend’s columns had included material taken from other sources without attribution and that he had been dismissed as a columnist.

Reached by e-mail on Tuesday about his letter in The Times, Mr. Townsend said he had read the Foreign Affairs article but had not intended to plagiarize from it.

Had we known of the unattributed material, we would not have published Mr. Townsend’s letter.

To my knowledge, the Times hasn’t made an announcement about the results of its plan to reexamine its verification procedures, so we’ll have to wait and see what solutions, if any, the paper can come up with. It’s admittedly a unique challenge to read, fact check, edit, and verify the authorship of such a large number of letters.

One useful strategy, since so many letters now come via e-mail, would be to create an online form for letter writers similar to the Chicago Tribune’s error report form. This form would require people to fill out information such as their name, home/work and email address, home or office phone number. It would cut down on the number of people who send in letters and offer nothing more than a singlefella96@yahoo.com e-mail address.

The form would speed up the process of gathering identifying information, and enable an editor to quickly check if the phone number matches the address or affiliation given. Of course, one of the best ways to verify authorship is decidedly old school: pick up the phone and call them.

Apart from that, any letter that accuses someone of “brandishing dildoes and ‘doobies’ or marijuana joints” requires a genuine fact check, however painful it may be.

Correction of the Week

“Due to space restrictions, the word “vegetarian” was omitted from the description of Rabbi Arie Chark’s favourite Chinese restaurant (”It’s a tough time to be Jewish,” Jan. 2). Rabbi Chark would like to assure readers that he does, in fact, keep kosher.” – Winnipeg Sun

“A STORY in The Advertiser yesterday stated that 9030 interstate visitors spent a night holidaying in SA in 2007, with that figure forecast to drop to 8699 this year.
The correct figures were 9,030,000 total visitor nights spent in SA in 2007, to drop to 8,699,000 during 2009.” – The Advertiser (Australia)

Parting Shot

“The article “Unified standard seen linking mobile world” published yesterday incorrectly stated that telecommunications executive Craig Ehrlich is married to Christine Loh Kung-wai. Statements attributed to Mr Ehrlich that he used the term “wife” to describe his relationship with Ms Loh were in fact not what he said. We apologise for any embarrassment this has caused.” – South China Morning Post

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.