Public editor

When politicians write letters to the editor

Updated: 2014-01-22T01:47:29Z

By Derek Donovan

The Kansas City Star

An emailer has an interesting question about the letters page, which is a very popular feature:

I read the letters to the editor published in The Star every day, and I was wondering about one I read today which blasted Sen. Pat Roberts, and was written by Milton Wolf. While there may be more than one person out there with the name Milton Wolf, I believe that Sen. Robert's political opponent in the next election is a Milton Wolf. What is The Star's policy regarding the publishing of letters to the editor by a political opponent?

The letters page is open to all who’d like to submit an entry for consideration, provided that they follow the submission guidelines. An address and phone number are required for verification, but only the city of residence is published. And yes, politicians and office-holders are welcome to submit letters, and their work appears not infrequently.

This reader made a suggestion in her follow-up:

That particular letter to the editor just seemed like free political advertising to me. I understand the free speech rights of citizens, and political candidates are certainly citizens, but it might be helpful to readers if the Star identified that the letter writer was an active and current candidate for office.

I see her first point, and it’s true that the exposure in The Star does in some ways work as advertisement. That can be a double-edged sword, though, as it isn’t uncommon for subsequent letter-writers to take a previous author to task.

I shared all this feedback with the letters editor, who pointed out another truism: Most candidates and office-holders specifically identify themselves in their letters — something that would help to raise their campaigns’ profile.

Some general tips for making your letter more likely to see print:

1. Be specific, not general. Write about a single bit of legislation or event to frame your argument. Statements of general like or distaste for “liberals” or “conservatives” aren’t usually strong contenders if someone else has written a good letter pointing out the problems or strengths of a certain proposal from one side of the aisle, for example.

2. The shorter, the better. The solicitation in the paper asks you to keep it to 150 words, though the online submission form lets you have a few more than that. But this is necessarily a forum that rewards brevity. If the letters editor has a choice between two letters of relatively equal strength, but one is short enough for him to get another letter on the page, guess which one he’s likely going to pick.

3. Don’t use straw-man arguments or appeals to authority.

4. Don’t fill your letter with lots of data points. But if you do use facts and figures, supply the source.

5. Don’t resort to name-calling or simple denunciation of others’ morality.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to publiceditor@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/KCStarPublic.

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