Kevin MacMillan: A look at how our opinion pages work
October 22, 2014
The opinion pages in the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza have been very active recently with letters to the editor and guest columns on topics related to our local election races and ballot measures.
Every now and then, whether election season or not, I get inquiries from readers asking why certain items are published, what parameters we use to publish them and how we go about choosing which opinions make the cut.
For the most part, our policy is to publish any and all opinions, on any and all topics — in my view, a free press only works if we don't draw lines when it comes to what we allow on these pages.
They exist as a public forum for communities to offer ideas, vet issues and criticize public figures, and I'm a fan of letting as many opinions publish as possible. With that in mind, we will never not publish a letter or opinion because we feel it's "too liberal" or "too conservative" or because "I don't agree with this writer's view."
Sure, my personal views on a topic can disagree with a letter-writer's, but it's not my job to be subjective.
Now, the more controversial a topic (the hospital board election, Squaw Valley expansion or Diamond Peak Master Plan, among countless others), the more strong the opinions may be.
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But as far as any sort of method as to why we publish, say, seven letters that are in favor of Incorporate Olympic Valley, with only two against — or 12 letters endorsing Measures U and E, with only a few opposing (I'm simply hypothesizing here) — there really isn't. Again, for the most part, if you submit it, we'll run it.
Exceptions do exist (hence, "for the most part"), which we spell out at the bottom of our opinion pages every edition. Mainly, if your letter or column is deemed libelous, I'll either delete it — or, if a compromise can be reached, I'll reach out to the writer and offer him or her the chance to submit a new version that would pass, in my view, legal muster.
As often as possible, we run fact checks on opinions that include numbers, statistics and statements. Falsities are published, no doubt, due to the nature of our vetting process not being perfect — but we do spend time as needed to check items to ensure accuracy as best we can.
In terms of word count, we generally follow a 300-word limit for letters, and 700 for columns. But I do bend the rules sometimes if the issue is a hot one. That's a decision I make on a case-by-case basis, and at times I may be more strict on word counts than others, based on how much print space is available.
Speaking of judgment calls, we also publish in every edition on the opinion pages that the editor may not run a letter or column if it's stale, on a topic that's gotten too much play or a situation involving too many submissions by the same author.
But again, for the most part, I choose to publish most letters or columns I receive because we prefer to honor the First Amendment.
It's also in that vein why certain letters or columns that some will say include "personal attacks" are published. For the most part (again), the items we publish with opinions that are critical of others are when residents are calling out public figures for, in their eyes, irresponsible or unethical behavior.
There's no technical definition, so to speak, for a public figure, but we generally include elected officials, those running for office, public employees, celebrities, business executives, newspaper editors/publishers, professional athletes, education administrators/teachers, and others.
Just like when we write stories about these people when they do good things, when they get arrested and/or when there's a perception of wrongdoing by the public, we also allow residents in our opinion pages to praise or criticize them. And we always allow ample space for a public figure or entity to write a reply or rebuttal piece if he or she or it feels compelled to.
At times, the gray area on what constitutes a public figure is tough to fly through, and that's when we make judgment calls with an eye toward honoring the First Amendment. And in the end, my decision is also one that's up for criticism or praise. Just like we offer space for rebuttals, I'll also allow readers to criticize my editorial decisions — whether opinion-related or not.
Also, some have expressed confusion over the difference between a letter to the editor and a "My Turn" (Sun) or "Guest Column" (Bonanza). The simple differences are one is smaller, and it's tougher to run columns ASAP due to print space and the time it takes to read, edit (and fact check, if needed) them.
We do not, however, as some have suggested, recruit people to write letters or My Turns/Guest Columns on a certain topic or to criticize public figures. That's why our regular columnists have head shots (Jim Porter, Jim Clark, etc.), to distinguish from those submitting items for consideration.
Lastly, outside of unsigned editorials (wherein we take a position on something, endorse something, or otherwise share our opinion), nothing that publishes on our opinion pages reflects the views of the newspaper itself.
I hope this information sheds light on how things work when it comes to our papers' opinion pages. But I am always open to criticism and suggestions, so feel free to email me if you have either.
— Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Sierra Sun newspapers He may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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