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Rethinking the rules. (Editor's Note).

I once was on "God's" mailing list. At least once a month, he or she would send me a letter to the editor decrying the state of the planet. I sympathized with the writer's frustrations --which, if not well written, weren't that much different from Mark Twain's perspective in Letters from the Earth.

But the letters were never published.

That's because we required all letters to be verified. The writer never included a day-time telephone number and a home address. Not only that, but those letters exceeded our word limit. Plus, the writer was from out of town. The grammar and syntax would have taken hours to clean up. And the letters were full of unverifiable facts and probably libelous material.

And, frankly, I was suspicious that the writer wasn't using his real name.

"God" broke all the rules.

I wonder, sometimes, if we become slaves to letters rules.

I'm not proposing that rules be eliminated or that we print letters from "God."

But after editing this issue's Symposium on letters to the editor, I found myself thinking about how vital the letters sections are to our pages. And that led me to reflect about whether letters rules support or are in conflict with our goal of having a lively community dialogue on our pages.

Rules serve a good purpose. If the letters section is to be interactive, then giving readers guidelines helps them write letters that are more likely to be published.

Yet, think for a minute about the way we apply rules.

We frequently -- and enthusiastically -- urge people to write letters to the editor. Then when they write in, we present them with a list of reasons why we can't print their letters.

We become conditioned to automatically discard letters that don't fit the mold.

And those little "write us" paragraphs that most of us run in our letters section are often negative, too brief, and sometimes unclear. I'd bet most of them haven't been rewritten for years.

It would seem that for a section as important as letters to the editor, it ought to be given more thought. For most of us, it may be worthwhile to revisit the letters rules -- and set up a plan to discuss them regularly.

By the way, in writing his letter to the editor (below), Michael Zuzel, former Masthead editor, followed all the rules.

Kay Semion

To the editor:

A journalistic mentor of mine once warned me, "It's always ugly when journalists do math."

Unfortunately I embodied that sad-but-truism in my article, "And finally, the other cliffhanger" (Spring 2001 Masthead, page 31). In last fall's U.S. Senate race in Washington state, the final margin of 2,229 votes out of almost 2.5 million was a spread of nine-one-hundredths of one percent -- not nine-tenths of one percent, as I wrote.

I resolve to double-check my calculations in the future -- although, given that I have but half a brain, that means I'll get it right only 33.3 percent of the time. Um, wait, that's not right....

Michael Zuzel

The Columbian

Vancouver, Wash.
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:The Indianapolis Star. (Member News).
Next Article:Masthead symposium.

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