Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

Letters signed, unsigned and anonymous

While once a common practice, most newspapers now refuse to publish letters whose authors wish to remain anonymous. In this editorial we spell out the reasons why.

BY CHRIS SIMPSON

In our last issue of The Gull Lake Advance, we printed a feature on the town of Tompkins – the first, I hope, in a monthly series that will spotlight each community in our distribution area. The intent of this series is not to provide a Wikipedia-like history of the towns, nor to list all the social organizations and charities available in them. In other words, our aim isn’t to bore readers any more than necessary. Our aim is to glimpse into each town and highlight its interesting, quirky and human characteristics.

Perhaps some readers liked the piece. I have no way of knowing. But at least one person took offence and sent us a letter of complaint. The gist of this complaint appeared to be my failure to list every organization and charity in the town.

Okay. That’s fine. In this field you know you’re going to get criticism no matter what you do, and the letter would probably have been printed. But the writer also expressed the belief that we should print the letter under the name “Concerned Citizen.” The reasoning was that because the newspaper knew who had sent the letter it was all right not to print the name.

Well, at one time, yes. It was quite common for papers to print letters from “Concerned Citizen,” “Angry Reader,” or “Name Withheld by Request” right up to the 1930s and 1940s, at which point journalists began questioning the ethics involved. In a relatively short period of time the practice was shunned and a “must sign” policy replaced it. An occasional “Concerned Parent” could be found up to the 1960s, but they were rare. In more recent decades most editors (between 85 to 95 per cent, according to various studies) automatically reject anonymous or unsigned letters

But even now, despite the near-universal adherence to the “must sign” policy, it is not without its detractors.

In Bill Reader’s 2005 paper published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Reader considers the policy to be a “blind spot” for editors, and argues that “editors who make ethical arguments in favor of ‘must-sign’ policies should reconsider either their ethical justifications for those policies or the utility of the policies themselves.”

But we do this, Mr. Reader. We do this all the time.

Journalists are criticized and praised no matter what they write. Some people tell us in person – such as the man who came by the office to complain about my article on the death of Wittgenstein (a fly I’d come to regard as a pet). Ironically, a few days later the same article earned me an enthusiastic hug from a woman who’d also had a “pet fly,” and wanted to thank me because nobody had understood her feeling of loss at its passing.

Whether they’re praising or blaming, we know who these people are because they’re standing right in front of us.

Others write letters to the editor. In general we really like those, even the ones criticising us. Through these letters our readers express themselves not only to us, but to all the other readers. And again we know who these people are because the letters are signed.

Usually.

Some writers remain completely anonymous and some request their names to be withheld. Together these two small groups supply virtually all the abusive letters we get. Back in Toronto I once received a piece of doggy-doo in a letter. It had been enclosed by the (anonymous) writer to illustrate his opinion of my article on an indie film. Letters from those who won’t take responsibility for what they write can get very ugly, and for some journalists death threats are common.

Not every anonymous or unsigned letter is abusive, of course, and some, such as “Concerned Citizen” are merely uninformed about the latest standards in journalistic practices. But by and large these letters represent the truly frightening side of writer/reader relationships. It is through this that we are constantly fulfilling Bill Reader’s demand to “reconsider either [our] ethical justifications for those policies or the utility of the policies themselves.”

We do reconsider them – and we keep coming back to the same policy: No sign, no publish.

We sign what we write. We know full well that no matter what we write it will draw criticism from one quarter or another. How could it be otherwise when there are so many diverse opinions and sensibilities in the world? But still, we sign what we write. And we expect the same of everyone else.

As Kate [the publisher] said on Facebook, “We whole-heartedly appreciated Letters to the Editor, but if you’re going to stand up for something and tear us a new one, at least have the courage to sign the darn thing.”

After all, it’s what journalists do.

Originally published in The Gull Lake Advance, Feb. 5, 2013

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