Wick Communications

Is it possible to verify letters?

In Opinion pages on June 16, 2016 at 12:54 pm

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“I was ‘had’ this week.”

That is how Argus-Observer Editor Kristi Albertson started an email to me a couple days ago. The subject was the verification of letters to the editor and the problem was that someone went to great lengths to pretend to be someone else for purposes of getting a letter to the editor into the Ontario, Ore., newspaper. Kristi writes:

A letter was emailed to me from a lady with a legitimate physical and email address. No phone number was given, and she wasn’t in the phone book, but I stalked her online and found out she was a real person. So even without the number, I ran the letter.

She came in today: She did not write the letter.

For my money, Kristi did her due diligence. The emailed letter looked legitimate – in fact, it came from the local woman’s real email address but was sent from an advocacy group. She says she has received two other letters that appeared to come with local phone numbers but turned out to be Google Voice numbers that mimic local phone extensions. …

So what to do? Should we just not run opinion pieces unless the author walks in and hands you the letter? Has it come to that? And if it has, is this the end of print opinion pages?

I told Kristi that I thought she did everything a reasonable person would do to verify the letter. I know many of us require phone numbers, but that isn’t fool proof. Who’s to say that when you call that number you are talking to the person who’s name is at the bottom of the letter?

I think this is one of the reasons a thoughtful human editor who knows the community is so important. Frankly, I know most of our regular letter writers. I know if their letter just reads a bit “off.” I am going to notice a new name and perhaps scrutinize it a bit more. And we all have a secret editor sense that alerts us when a letter just seems … too well done? We know when a letter is out of the ordinary or about something that is well beyond the community boundaries or otherwise unfit for publication.

This is a tricky situation. I hate to advocate for printing any letter that you can’t absolutely verify, but I’m not entirely sure how to require that in 2016. Ideas? I’m all ears.

Clay

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