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New research on the nature of letters and their writers.

Late last year, some of my colleagues at Ohio University and I finalized a national telephone survey project intended to find out what demographic groups are the most likely to write letters to the editor and see their letters published. The survey itself was conducted in 2003, and asked 1,017 adults about their newspaper reading habits, their letter-writing habits, and basic demographic information (age, sex, income, education, etc.). Keep in mind that the findings are general to the entire U.S. population, and may not describe your specific community (unless your community is statistically average).

Among the more interesting findings of the survey were:

* People over the age of 45 were twice as likely to have written a letter to the editor as were people under 45. The most active letter writers are between 45 and 54 years old (42 percent of respondents in that age group claimed to have written letters, compared to 35.3 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds and 17.8 percent of 18- to 44-year-olds). That same 45 to 54 age group is also the most likely to have had their letters published.

* People with household incomes above $40,000 a year were the most likely to write letters, with about 30 percent of those with incomes of $40,000 to $60,000 and 30 percent of those with incomes of $60,000 to $80,000 writing letters, and 40 percent of those with incomes above $80,000 writing. Although a similar percentage--36 percent--of people with incomes below $10,000 also wrote letters, when looking at people whose letters get published, higher income seems to be a major factor: 25 percent of those with incomes above $80,000 had their letters published, compared to just 13 percent of those with incomes below $10,000.

* Education level was a very significant factor in determining letter writing and letter acceptance, with the rates of both increasing considerably when compared with education levels. Only 9 percent of those with some high school wrote letters, and just 4.4 percent had their letters published, compared with 32 percent of college graduates writing and 18.5 percent of them seeing their letters get published. The most prolific--and successful--letter writers were people with advanced degrees: 45 percent of people with advanced degrees had written letters, and 27 percent had their letters published.

* Rural residents were marginally more likely to write letters than their suburban and urban counterparts (32 percent of rural residents reported writing letters, compared to 26 to 28 percent of urban and suburban residents). However, rural residents were twice as likely to have their letters published than were urban residents (20 percent compared to 10 percent, respectively).

* Partisan and ideological differences had little bearing on letter writing. Republicans were only slightly more likely than Democrats to have written letters and have them published, and liberals were only slightly more likely than conservatives to have written and have gotten published. (Interestingly, we found that there are a fair number of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.) A more telling factor was the strength of ideological positions--strong liberals and strong conservatives were a bit more likely to write than were centrists.

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* As expected, newspaper readership habits had a strong impact on letter writing and letter acceptance. People who read newspapers at least four days a week were considerably more likely to write letters than people who read only three days or fewer (34 percent to 19.5 percent). Readership has a dramatic effect on letter acceptance: 20 percent of those who read newspapers at least four days a week got their letters published, compared to just 8 percent for light readers.

* Whites are much more likely to write letters than racial minorities, 31.4 percent compared to 11.2 percent (the remainder did not identify their race). Whites had their letters published 28.5 percent of the time, compared to just 4 percent for minorities.

We also ran some analyses of people who hadn't written letters. Half said they wouldn't write letters under any circumstances, but just over a third--35 percent--said they would write letters if their names could be withheld. Among that subgroup of "did not write letters" people, we found:

* Some 37.5 percent of women who did not write letters would write if their names could be withheld.

* Nearly half (44 percent) of city dwellers who hadn't written said they would consider writing if not for "must sign" policies.

* Nearly half of those aged 18 to 44 (44.5 percent) said they would consider writing if their names would not be published.

* Considering income, about half of those with low incomes (below $25,000) and half of those with high incomes ($80,000 or above) expressed interest in writing "name-withheld" letters.

* Racial minorities were much more interested in writing "name withheld" letters than were whites, with nearly half of non-whites who didn't write--46.1 percent--saying they would write letters if their names could be withheld.

Overall, the findings support what past research has found: that most successful letter writers tend to be middle-aged, upper-middle-class college graduates who are avid newspaper readers--in a lot of ways, they fit the same demography as many editorial page editors (except, of course, for income--you all clearly deserve a raise).

Having been a letters editor myself, I know that being the "referee" of the forum is a constant struggle to try to be open-minded and as accommodating as possible to letter writers from all walks of life. I also know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to know about a person's income, education level, or race just from reading a letter (although one could argue that the better written a letter is, the more likely the writer has had a pretty good education). But as our survey indicates--and past research has shown--in the end it seems that our letters sections are not the egalitarian, democratic forums many of us want them to be, but rather forums for the educated middle class.

As I have written before in The Masthead and elsewhere, I do believe that a major barrier to many under-represented letter writers are "must sign" policies. Granted, opening the doors to anonymous letters would generate activity among the wildly irresponsible and petty members of the audience (which is why I enforced a "must sign" policy during my days as an EPE), but relaxing a "must sign" policy doesn't remove the trash can as the best forum for libelous, vulgar, and irresponsible comments--whether those comments are signed or anonymous. But rather than focusing so much time verifying names, letters editors might be better off spending that time looking for the most interesting opinions, and be willing to run a "name withheld" letter now and again to make the forum more inviting for women, city dwellers, young adults, and racial minorities.

Those who are most likely to have letters published

* Age 45-54

* Income $80k+

* Advanced degrees

* Rural residents

* Read 4+ days per week

* White

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is based on research published in the Fall 2004 issue of Newspaper Research Journal, in the article "Age, Wealth, Education Predict Letters to the Editor" by Bill Reader, Guido Stempel III of Ohio University, and Douglass K. Daniel of The Associated Press in Washington, D.C.

Bill Reader is an assistant professor in the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. E-mail reader@ohio.edu
COPYRIGHT 2005 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Title Annotation:Letter-writing demography
Author:Reader, Bill
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
Words:1233
Previous Article:In letters and columns alike, less is more.
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