The Beacon’s policy on letters begins “The mission of The Andover Beacon is to serve and strengthen the Andover community. To that end, we welcome civil, reasoned letters …”
This policy has been in place for every year of the Beacon’s existence (since 2004), and the Board of Directors takes it very seriously.
This year, more than any time in the past, we’ve received letters that did not meet our standards of civility and reason. In every case, we’ve worked with the writers (who, for the record, have come from both sides of the political spectrum) to edit the letters in mutually-agreeable ways so that they were consistent with our policy and we could publish them.
Because this editing is a very time-consuming process for all concerned, we’d like to explain what you can do to ensure that your letter complies with our policy.
But first, on a related matter, …
First Amendment Rights
The First Amendment only prohibits governments (and people acting on a government’s behalf) from limiting speech. Non-governmental entities (like the Beacon) are free to decide for themselves what they do or don’t publish. In fact, the First Amendment protects from government interference the Beacon’s right to make that decision.
With that in mind, the Beacon’s Board of Directors decided, before the first issue was even published, that our mission to serve and strengthen the community would be significantly degraded if we published letters that weren’t civil and reasoned. We believe that policy has served the community well, allowing for lively, productive discourse without the distractions and distortions of emotional rhetoric.
But, understandably in this current climate of pervasive emotional rhetoric, not everyone is clear about exactly what we mean by “civil and reasoned.” The rest of this article will offer some specific guidelines that should help.
Things to Avoid
It’s much easier to describe what isn’t civil and reasoned—things that we will ask you to change before we will publish your letter—than it is to describe all the ways to write a civil, reasoned letter. So here are the most important things you should avoid:
Stating opinions as facts: It’s a big problem when you state something that you believe as though it were a fact; doing so can confuse the reader about what is fact and what is opinion. Be sure to preface your opinions with words like “I believe …” or “I think ….”
For example: “The House passed the bill” is a fact. “It will harm women and children” is an opinion; phrase it as such and give the reader your reasons for holding that opinion.
Disrespectful rhetoric. There are myriad rhetorical devices that have been used for centuries to degrade and undercut something or someone the writer disagrees with: name-calling, sarcasm, irony, insincere compliments, etc. Don’t stoop to any of those things.
It’s also neither civil nor reasoned to paint a dark picture of a person or policy or idea that you disagree with, using words and images that are negative and emotionally loaded. Don’t turn your disagreement into some kind of theatrical production.
It’s fine to disagree with a person or policy or idea. But just say that you disagree, and in a civil manner, list the reasons why.
Ad hominem attacks. Don’t direct your comments at a person’s character, appearance, intelligence, background, education, etc. when it’s their ideas you disagree with.
Exaggeration. This is an especially troublesome problem because it’s so commonplace to make a point by exaggerating. Don’t say “always” when the objective facts only support “sometimes.” Don’t say “all” or “every” when the truth is “some.” Don’t state as a fact “huge” when there’s no objective measure of the thing you’re describing. Basically, stick to the facts as best you can determine them.
Dog whistles. There are certain words and phrases in common use in politics that are used intentionally to elicit a strong, predictable emotional response. Those “dog whistles,” when used as such, have no place in reasoned discourse.
Facts you can’t know. Absent explicit statements on their part, we can never know another person’s motivation. So don’t state as a fact that their motivation is this or that. We also can’t ever predict with absolute certainty the future course of events, so don’t state as a fact that this or that will happen.
And much, much more. The list of incivilities goes on and on … feigning ignorance of something well known so you can ask an “innocent” question … peppering someone with whom you disagree with pointed questions instead of simply explaining to the reader what you believe, and why … attempting to hoist someone with their own petard by intentionally misconstruing or distorting their words …
Obviously, we could go on and on in this vein, but hopefully you have already got the point, which can pretty much be summed up like this:
Show respect for the difference between objective fact and opinion, and show respect for the people, policies, or ideas that you disagree with.
If you do that, your letter will probably serve the community well.
Now, about the length of letters and opinions. Basically, shorter is always better. Make your essential points clearly, and be done with it.
That said, we don’t enforce a specific word count — instead, we consider the importance of the topic, our readers’ interest in the topic, the value you’re bringing to the topic, etc.
But as the word count creeps up into the hundreds, it becomes more and more likely that we’ll be in touch with you about the length. Every column-inch in the Beacon costs our donors and our advertisers money; every column-inch costs your readers time they could be spending doing something else. We try to be very considerate of those who support us and those we serve, and we expect you to be the same.
Finally … a Work in Progress
The Beacon’s policies on letters and opinions are a work in progress. As new ways of subverting civil, reasoned discourse in our community come to light, we intend to update our policies to specifically rule those new ways out-of-bounds. So stay tuned.