When an Editor Chases “Balance” Over a Cliff

Editorial pages editors have long wrestled with the question of how to treat letters to the editor. Should a newspaper publish letters in proportion to what it receives, or should it be sure it prints equal numbers of letters on each side of an issue in contention? When Columbia Journalism Review sampled letters-to-the-editor at newspapers around the country in March and April of last year, it found that letter writers who opposed the war in Iraq dominated. Despite that, editors of three out of ten newspapers studied chose to publish an equal number of pro-war and anti-war letters. In Eugene, Oregon, the Register-Guard received seven antiwar letters for each pro-war letter, but its policy was to print one pro-war letter for every antiwar letter. So also with the Nashville Tennessean, where 70 percent of all letters-to-the-editor were antiwar but 50 percent of letters printed were pro-war. In Lexington, Kentucky, letters were 2-to-1 antiwar in one week and 1-to-1 in another week; yet both weeks the Lexington Herald-Leader selected letters at a 1-to-1 ratio.

Most of the seven other papers surveyed tried to print letters on either side in rough proportion to what they received.

Both tactics can be misleading. Letters that come in don’t necessarily reflect community sentiment (angry folks tend to be more inclined to write), but creating an artificial balance where one does not exist seems certain to distort matters even worse.

Last week, the editors of the Appleton Post-Crescent, came up with its own novel solution, telling readers in an editorial:

We’ve been getting more letters critical of President Bush than those that support him. We’re not sure why, nor do we want to guess. But in today’s increasingly polarized political environment, we would prefer our offering to put forward a better sense of balance. …

If you would like to help us “balance” things out, send us a letter, make a call or punch out an e-mail.

Readers didn’t take too kindly to that attempt to salt the mailbag. One asked the obvious question: “Could it be that you are ignoring the current temperature of the Valley? If you are getting more letters critical of Mr. Bush, it is likely because the Valley is more critical of him.”

After EditorAndPublisher.com brought the paper’s unorthodox campaign to national attention this week, the Post-Crescent backpedaled with a follow-up editorial.

This time, editors wrote:

We were partially motivated by some readers in the Valley, who thought we were intentionally printing letters from only one side of the aisle.

Unfortunately, we weren’t clear enough in our intent. Many readers perceived our plea in the editorial for greater reader participation as an unabashed solicitation for people to weigh in on the side of the incumbent president. We should have done a better job stating our case.

Like those alarmed readers, Campaign Desk sees the first editorial as “an unabashed solicitation for people to weigh in on the side of the incumbent president,” and we’re not surprised that readers came down hard on the Post-Crescent.

This is a classic case of an attempt to achieve “balance” coming off as blatant shilling for a candidate — in this case, the president. We come down on the side of a different, but equally traditional journalistic value: that a newspaper ought to try to provide an accurate representation of how its readers feel, and in what proportion.

To do anything else is to distort reality.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.