Friday, November 02, 2007

Rural editor, urban columnist say anonymity allows intimidated rural residents to speak out

In small towns, writing a controversial letter to the editor can be a recipe for disaster — because everyone knows the face that goes with the author's name when it's published. That's why some community newspapers break from standard journalistic practice and allow anonymous letters, so people are not afraid to say what they really think, writes Connie Schultz in a column in today's edition of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

She highlights The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky. (located on Encarta map), which has a feature called "Speak Your Piece" for residents to have their say — anonymously. The comments sometimes take up two full pages of the broadsheet paper in the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfield.

"We live in a rural county," Eagle Editor Ben Gish told Schultz. "Politics can be rough here, and some politicians give letter-writers a hard time. In the early 1970s, police beat up the kids of parents who wrote letters criticizing police brutality. Or someone wrote a letter criticizing the coal industry or a politician and their family members would lose their jobs." (Gish and Schulz didn't mention this, but also in the 1970s, the Eagle's office was firebombed and a Whitesburg policeman was found responsible.)

Schultz also quotes Bill Reader, an Ohio University journalism professor who led the editorial page of the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., in the late 1990s. She said he helped her come to the realization that anonymous letters can play a big part in community journalism. More than anything, the option to remain anonymous would inspire more people to write letters, Schultz writes. "One national survey found that 35 percent of those who have never sent a letter to the editor would if they didn't have to identify themselves. Whose voices are being silenced by our insistence that regular citizens meet the same standard as those of us paid to give our opinion?"

Reader says writers who want anonymity should be considered on a case-by-case basis: "Judge the letter on its merits. Is it a novel opinion? Is it well-articulated? If we give the space to readers, they'll see the newspaper is the place to go to air ideas." (Read more)

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