By Andy Schotz | January 27th, 2010
I hadn’t heard of the “Ellie Light” letters to the editor before today, but the story of the man who says he wrote them was interesting nonetheless.
I’ve railed against news web sites that let readers post anonymous comments after stories. The practice goes against long-held standards we use in print – vetting for libel or nastiness, verifying authorship, maintaining civil discourse.
Recently, a lawyer told me and my colleagues that newspapers don’t have time to call the writer of each letter to the editor and shouldn’t be expected to.
I know that’s not true, and said so.
I was an editor at a weekly newspaper in upstate New York. I called for each and every writer, or the letter didn’t run. My colleague made fun of me for trying to reach the name at the bottom of the form letter from the Girl Scouts.
Readers should expect that newspapers have made a reasonable attempt, at least, to verify the names behind the opinions on their pages. It’s a basic duty.
What happened at the newspapers that ran “Ellie Light” letters? Did they try to contact the writer? Did Mr. Steward lie to them?
I’m eager to read explanations from editors whose publications were duped, namely: How can we trust your pages next time?
Here’s one from Ben Smith of Politico, who didn’t mind that he couldn’t verify who wrote the letter.
Kudos to Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Sabrina Eaton, who was more skeptical than opinion page editors across the country should have been.
- Andy Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee