Write a Letter to the Editor
A timely, focused, clearly written letter to the editor is an impactful tool for reaching the wider community with important ideas, and a valuable opportunity to counter inaccurate information or broaden the context of an issue. As members of the community, the voices and perspectives of individuals have credibility and authority that is not possible from others.
“…I like to think about the opinion page as a sort of public square, where a community can gather to discuss the pressing issues of the day. As a news organization in Hampton Roads and one focused on our readership, we favor writers who live here and write about issues that directly affect the region. We do publish letters and columns about national issues and occasionally about international issues, but we try to provide readers with insight and information about where they live and decisions that will affect their lives, their children, their homes and businesses. If we have a choice between a letter about a pending city council decision or one about federal legislation, we'll almost always go with the locally focused letter. (There are exceptions, of course, but that's sort of our general guiding philosophy.)
Even as the person who writes nearly all of the editorials, I'll happily admit that the letters are the star of the show. It's a rare place where Hampton Roads residents hear from their neighbors, where readers can contribute and, let's be honest, everyone gets a kick from seeing their names in the paper. A lively letters section tends to reflect a healthy newspaper so we're fortunate in that regard. We receive about a thousand letters a month but only have the space to publish 170-200 of those. It's a great problem to have. I know of newspapers that struggle to fill their letters section on a daily basis, so I think our situation is a testament to the civic engagement of the readership and a letters section that inspires people to contribute.”
Brian Colligan, Opinion Editor, The Virginian Pilot
Click here o write a letter (maximum 250 words) to the editor of The Virginian Pilot
Letter Writing Tips
1) Be prompt.
Respond while the issue is still fresh in the minds of the journalists and their audience. Email your letter to the publication. Email addresses are found both in the print version of the paper and online.
2) State the point of your letter within the first two sentences.
Let the reader know exactly what the issue is and your perspective on it.
3) Be concise.
If you are writing for publication, be aware that most publications will not print more than 150-300 words for a letter to the editor. Check to see what your paper’s limit is and stick to it. Editors definitely do not like to spend time shortening letters and will tend to choose those that require the least attention.
4) Limit your topic.
Focus on no more than one or two points. This can be a challenge, particularly when responding to lengthy articles filled with factual errors, but it’s better to fully explain one point than to inadequately cover five.
5) Be specific in your criticism.
Was there an error in the report, did it lack context, was it, one-sided? If it was partisan, whom did it favor? For example, “The article quoted only pro-Palestinian sources, leaving the Israeli position unrepresented and sharply deceiving readers about the full story.”
6) Be courteous. State the facts dispassionately, without hostility.
Always avoid accusations and personal attacks against the reporter and publication. Stay focused on providing accurate information and correcting falsehoods. A brief anecdote or eyewitness “hook” can work well too where relevant to illustrate your point and convey authenticity.
7) Use the issue as a launching point to make your own points.
No need to wait until there is something to criticize. Often you can use a non-controversial article as an opportunity to provide factual information related to the issue. Most newspapers are unwilling to publish letters that focus solely on criticism of their publication but encourage letter writers to broaden the discussion with additional points.
8) Maximize the impact.
Send a copy of your letter not just to the editor, but also to the reporter, foreign editor, publisher, to advertisers/sponsors of the broadcast or to congressional reps if the report was on public radio or television. When writing to a syndicated columnist, be sure to send a copy to the paper the columnist works for, as well as to your local paper if the column appears there.
Remember, persistence is often the key to getting published.
Additional resources on how to Write a Letter to the Editor:
ADL Tools for Advocating to the Media
How to Gauge Coverage - What's Fair and What's Not