The Asheville Citizen-Times, a Gannett paper, editorialized against the amendment on April 27, but didn’t clearly restate its position closer to the vote, instead just summarizing the primary contests in a day-before round-up. But columnist John Boyle wrote on May 9 about feeling “ashamed” of North Carolina’s vote to pass what he called “Abomination One.” The response to Boyle’s column—in online comments and letters to the editor, 23 of which were published online inspired another column three days later in which Boyle acknowledged that passions (including his own) run hot in an election year. He promised to—and called on readers to—“remain civil,” and reminded readers that a columnist, by definition, is someone who expresses an opinion.
Boyle’s strong stand and his efforts at endorsing civility are laudable, but the polarized and siloed discussions on this particular issue, and in Boyle’s particular divided town, prompt questions about how traditional opinion leaders can break through. The Citizen-Times uses Facebook comments—a method that almost guarantees a higher level of civility by requiring real names, though it also comes with drawbacks—and the comments on the paper’s editorial tended to reflect the views of the newspaper. Those with an alternate view went elsewhere, to Topix, with anonymous vitriol. (That self-sorting and polarization is worth deeper analysis later, for clues to how newspapers can preserve their traditional civic influence. Perhaps one small lesson from Asheville: Repetition of a paper’s editorial stand just before election day shows conviction and reaches readers that might have missed the first editorial.)
In Raleigh, the state capitol, in the most educated and most liberal part of the state, the (McClatchy) News & Observer printed on the Sunday before the vote a long editorial titled, “Just say no.” In previous weeks, the paper had been filled with readers’ letters against the amendment. Burgetta Wheeler, a columnist and editor of letters to the editor, said the paper devoted extra print space to the letters by running fewer syndicated columns.
“We got more than 1,000 letters last week,” she said on the Monday after the primary. Most of the missives were against the amendment.
“We printed almost every ‘pro’ (amendment) we got and maybe 5 percent of the ‘anti’ we got,” Wheeler said. “We always try to print in ratio,” she added, so that what appears in the paper reflects the overall volume of letters. In this case, though, “we bent over backward to print the ‘pros’ because there were so few.”
Since print space couldn’t accommodate the outpouring, the news organization also published 11 packages of groups of letters online. The paper commits to providing an individual link to each letter, and some readers are still discussing the issue a week after the vote. Each letter can attract comments through Disqus, and the unique link approach enables the sharing of views online elsewhere. It’s a labor-intensive method, but worthy of consideration for other papers as readers move online and share thoughts more frequently in social media.
The News & Observer’s Wheeler said she watched the letters for “astroturfing,” or the technique that activists sometimes use by preparing form letters and asking multiple people to send the letters in as their own. While she knew some activists were urging their networks to write, she saw no obvious uses of the tactic.
In Charlotte, the Charlotte Observer’s editorial board produced two powerful editorials opposing the amendment, and, the day before the primary, recapped this stance in a third editorial. The Sunday before primary day, the Observer devoted half its op-ed page to letters and short guest columns against the amendment, and half to letters and columns for the amendment. “The half-page for each on the Sunday before was purposely balanced because we were so close to the election at that point,” Taylor Batten, the Observer’s editorial page editor, wrote in an email.
The print space devoted to the issue showed a commitment to community discussion; the effort to divide that space completely equally seemed unnecessary, even just before the election, given that the paper’s editorial pages had clearly taken a stand. A proportional division based on the submissions received could have been better, with some method for using the unlimited space online to share submitted columns that wouldn’t fit in print.
Nancy Webb, who edits the letters for the Observer, said she received many more original letters against the amendment than supporting it. The only exception, she said, came earlier in the spring, when form letters arrived calling for a boycott of Starbucks for supporting same-sex marriage. (The National Organization for Marriage urged the letter-writing campaign.) Webb said the Observer avoids printing astroturfed letters.