Scrutinize letters during election season

Jul 1, 2024

Election season demands special guidelines to let writers have their say and still maintain some control over the letters column.

Campaigns are in full swing as Election Day nears. Editors should pay extra attention to letters that give a thumbs up or thumbs down to candidates and other ballot initiatives.

Letter-writing campaigns have become as sophisticated and strategic as advertising campaigns. An unfortunate result is that many newspapers now charge for election-related letters. While I appreciate the arguments for enacting the policy, it’s still disappointing, and I respectfully disagree.

The policy is perplexing as editors often bemoan the lack of reader interaction on opinion pages. Then, when election season swings around and letters naturally ramp up, newspapers limit debate to “paid opinions” only.

The pros and cons of paid letters could consume an entire discussion, but I pose one question as newspapers contemplate implementing the policy: Where do you draw the line? Orchestrated letter-writing campaigns occur year-round on a variety of issues before local policy-making bodies. Are you accepting only “paid opinions” in these instances, as well? It’s a sure-fire way to squelch the lively exchange of opinions and vibrant community conversation.

That debate aside, editors can and should diligently enforce letters policies — and even take extra steps — during election season.


Newsrooms should brainstorm to tailor policies to their circumstances.

Edit in ample proportions. For starters, it’s a good bet that the introductory and concluding paragraphs can be eliminated from most election letters. From there, feel free to edit aggressively for redundancy. The delete button on your keyboard should receive extra workout as Election Day nears.

Limit the frequency and length of letters. Consider restrictions beyond normal letters policies. For example, limit individuals to one letter for the primary election campaign and one for the general election, or one letter per race for individuals weighing in on several contests. Set a word limit and make few exceptions without strong justification. A lot can be conveyed in, say, 300 words.

Verify. Confirm all letters, preferably with a phone call. Be wary of letters coming from the same email address, FAX number or other social media account.

Set parameters for responses. The letters column is typically used to respond to issues raised in stories, editorials and other letters. Letters usually should not be a forum for candidates to react to paid ads. The best guideline is that candidates respond to the message in the same avenue as the original message. There could be exceptions; an ad that contains misinformation or is terribly misleading might warrant a response in the letters column.

Establish deadlines. Deadlines are necessary to allow ample opportunity to debate issues. Set a separate deadline for letters that raise new issues. Publicize deadlines early and often.

Identify authors, where appropriate. Some circumstances dictate that newspapers identify authors by position or relationship to a candidate. For example, school district business managers could write why it’s in the best interests to support a school levy referendum, or campaign managers might respond to criticism leveled against their candidates.

Set ground rules for rebuttals. Election season invariably produces letter-writing volleys. Don’t be afraid of implementing reasonable ground rules; it’s in the best interests of readers. A good rule of thumb — even in standing letters policies — is to limit each individual to an original letter and one rebuttal. Then kindly direct them to a private conversation. Dismiss any complaints that the other person had the last word; that will always be the case.

As an Eagle scout, I always reacquaint myself with the Boy Scout Law during election season. I have memorized the credo: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”

I might be a bit facetious, but show me a candidate for elective office, and I can likely produce letters from supporters that extol values befitting an upstanding scout.

Editors are increasingly challenged to separate the wheat from the chaff in today’s orchestrated letter-writing campaigns. Election season demands special guidelines to let writers have their say and still maintain some control over the letters column. It’s an opportune time to sound the alarm to candidates and readers alike.

Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minnesota) Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at and welcomes comments and questions at