Public Editor

‘Fact check’ personal assertions in letters?

An emailer brought up an interesting question about a writer who contributed to

today’s Letters column

in the Opinion section.

Writing about changes to the country’s health care system, he recounted his personal experiences. In part:

I’m 73 years old, and in the last 10 years I have had health problems.
With all of the problems I had, the out-of-pocket cost to me was zero. No charges at the doctor’s office; no charges from hospitals or surgeons’ visits to the hospital; no outside money did I have to pay. I had Medicare, and my secondary insurance took care of all the expenses that Medicare did not. Since Obamacare started, I have had to pay about $200 out of pocket just for office visits to see my doctor.

The reader who contacted me doubted his account.

Why doesn't someone at The Star edit these letters and realize there is not sufficient information to evaluate his criticism? You have no idea the amount of his premiums when he was paying nothing for his medical care and what his premiums are presently when he is paying an amount. Also, you have no idea who his insurance company is.

That’s true. I no longer work on the letters, but I did for over eight years, and in the past editors have not demanded proof of assertions such as this. On these personal matters, one takes the letter-writer at his or her word.

I recall one similar question from a reader that actually led me to contact the letter-writer with the allegations of stretching the truth. In that case, the writer supplied me with documentation.

The question worth pondering is whether that standard of proof is reasonable or not. I’m a bit torn on this one, and can see arguments on either side of it. Clearly, The Star shouldn’t publish false information. But since it’s a letter clearly labeled as coming from a person whose identity has been verified, I don’t know that it’s necessary for the letters editor to demand proof of what a person says he spends. In cases such as this, a personal assertion may be enough.

However, if the letter-writer were instead the subject of a news story, especially one that was looking at the costs of health care specifically, it would require verification on the reporter’s part.