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Turf or astroturf? A look at the scope of the "canned letter" phenomenon.

Several years ago, the "astroturf" phenomenon was a big deal for editorial page editors across the nation, resulting in several commentaries and news reports about this high-tech wrinkle in the ages-old letter-writing campaign. Two high-profile cases even made the news wires--a series of identical letters signed by different soldiers serving in Iraq, and several similar letters that originated from the Bush/Cheney campaign website.

I decided to spend a year studying the phenomenon, particularly with the goal of determining just how far "astroturf" had spread, and, more importantly, to get a sense of how special-interest groups view letters to the editor in their advocacy campaigns.

For the study, I drew a random sample of two hundred Web pages in which special-interest groups offered letter-writing tips to supporters. I used the three most popular search engines at the time--Google, Yahoo!, and MSN. com--and alternated among them to draw the sample. Each website was then analyzed for a variety of attributes to get an overall sense of how those groups promote the use of letters, including (but not exclusive to) "astroturf."

The findings were both surprising and encouraging (if you're predisposed to seeing the glass as half full). First off, "astroturf" is an infrequent tactic--just 15.5 percent provided text and explicitly encouraged supporters to copy that text in their "letters." An additional 18 percent provided text that could be copied, but did not explicitly encourage copying. A few groups--6.5 percent of the total--provided text but discouraged copying. The remaining 60 percent provided no text to copy and no mention of whether or not to copy text in letters.

Of course, that means that 33.5 percent of such groups could facilitate "astroturf" (assuming some supporters might copy sample letters without being told to do so). That's a sobering thought for those who think "astroturf" is a spreading problem. Still, the clear majority of those special interest groups provided tips for their supporters to write letters while either discouraging "astroturf" or providing no means for writers to "copy and paste."

What should be encouraging, however, is what those groups did recommend, as the findings read like a standard letters policy you might find on a good editorial page:

* 65.5 percent urged supporters to keep letters short, usually in the two hundred to five hundred word range.

* 57 percent urged supporters to sign their names, and 41.5 percent told letter writers to expect a call from the newspaper to verify authorship.

* 48 percent urged supporters to respond to articles or editorials that have already appeared in the newspaper.

* 29 percent urged writers to be original as they wrote letters, and 28 percent urged letter writers to be civil or polite in letters.

* 26 percent urged writers to consult the newspaper's printed letters policy before writing.

Perhaps what is most encouraging (again, from the glass-half-full perspective) is that those advocacy groups view newspapers as the most useful forums for such discourse. A whopping 93 percent of the Web pages mentioned "newspapers" as targets for letters to the editor, with magazines coming in a distant second (just 11 percent), TV and radio an even more distant third (6.5 percent), and websites barely registering (1.5 percent). Among those sites that mentioned newspapers, the majority--67.5 percent--specifically mentioned "small" or "local" newspapers, compared to the 11 percent that recommended sending letters to metro newspapers.

Overall, the findings suggest that "astroturf" is not a very common tactic, although as many as one-third of special interest groups that encourage letter-writing might facilitate it somehow. The findings also suggest that smaller newspapers are likely to deal with it more often than bigger papers, assuming supporters follow their groups' advice on where to send letters. Clearly, the word is out about what editors require of letter writers, particularly in terms of length and signature requirements.

That said, I would like to urge editors to not use the above findings as further justification for the editorial page's apparent "war on 'astroturf.'" As a few (very few) editorialists have argued in recent years, an "astroturf" letter is still a letter, and it signifies an individual's decision to stand up and be counted, even if the ideas he or she is expressing come straight from the marketing department of some slick Washington lobbying group. I have read many editors' castigations of the practice as akin to cheating on homework, when, to the "writers," the activity is probably much closer to sending a Hallmark card, or buying a bumper sticker.

Given that so many groups seem to "get" what editors are looking for in letters, I wonder if, on the "astroturf" issue, more editors would be willing to try to "get" what advocacy groups--and their supporters--are trying to accomplish with "astroturf." If the letter is submitted by a local resident who strongly supports such a cause, maybe there is some real "turf" in that activity after all.

Bill Reader is an assistant professor at E. W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University, and is a former editorial page editor for the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania. E-mail
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Title Annotation:letters to the editor campaigns
Author:Reader, Bill
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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