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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Where to publish letters to the editor?

Posted by Scott Tibbs at 4:00 AM (#)

About four years ago now, after a flood of complaints about the letters to the editor section hosting theological debates, Herald-Times editor Bob Zaltsberg wrote the following announcing a change in policy:

Letters that simply attempt to interpret the Bible will no longer be published in The Herald-Times editorial pages.

That does not mean the Bible or an interpretation of it will never again be allowed in the letters column. But the reference to the Bible must be part of a larger argument or opinion about an issue of some current relevance.

This past Sunday, a letter to the editor was published dealing only with theological arguments, leaving some in the comments to complain that the letter should have been published in the Saturday religion page.

Thus is the problem with these types of letters. The June 15 letter, taken on its own, probably belongs in the Religion LTTE section on Saturday. What makes this a thorny issue is that it was in response to a LTTE that addressed religious arguments on a political/social issue published two weeks earlier. That letter met the standards for the editorial page established by Zaltsberg a while back, allowing authors to use religious arguments in support of positions on political and social issues. While the June 15 letter does not do that, it was in response to another letter that did.

Allowing the first author to make a theological argument about Christian doctrine while not allowing a direct response on the same page does raise issues of fairness. Furthermore, the interpretation of that rule has been just plain strange at times, though the problem I had in 2011 was resolved quickly.

So what is the solution to a situation like this? One obvious solution would have been to ask the author of the June 15 letter to tie his theological argument to a political or social issue, to meet the standard. But where do you draw the line? If 20 words of a 200 word letter are about politics and the other 180 are about theology, does that meet the standard? The easiest solution would be to abolish the religion letters rule, though I cannot imagine that would be popular after readers complained about the letters in the first place.

It is certainly an interesting question, and I am glad I am not the one implementing this policy.

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