To be or not to be anonymous

By Jessie Kuenzel
Staff Writer

A longstanding staple found in almost all newspapers across the country, letters to the editors provide an important forum for public comment or debate.

Ranging anywhere from responses to recent articles to commentary on local and national issues, letters to the editor amplify of the voices of those who feel they have something important to say.

In most ways, letters to the editor are unlike most other content found in newspapers. They are not pre-planned or edited in any way by editorial staff; they are published exactly as they are received, spelling errors and all. However, in one respect, letters to the editor are held to a higher standard than journalistic articles, and it is this very standard that threatens the essential function within a community that these letters are supposed to perform.

The use of anonymous news sources is one of the most hotly contested ethical issues in modern journalism, and although the practice may fall into question often, there is no doubt that some of the most earth-shaking and important stories of the 20th and 21st centuries have been thanks to—at least in part, if not entirely—the use of anonymous sources and whistleblowers.

Independent studies conducted by William Blankenburg in 1992 and William Goodsell in 1996 found that approximately 35 percent of all news articles contained anonymous attribution.

One might expect that anonymous letters to the editor would also fall under the umbrella of this debate, and that while this debate continues that at least some anonymous letters might be found in publications, it seems that somewhere in the 1960s, debate on this issue halted completely and anonymous letters to the editor have simply been written off as unpublishable by virtually all modern newspapers.

A study done by S. Kapoor in 1995 showed that almost 85 percent of newspapers require a name to be submitted with submitted letters. However, a 2004 survey taken across the country by Bill Reader, Guido Stemple, and Douglass Daniel showed that over 30 percent of those who took the poll said that they would want to write a letter to the editor to their local publication if their name would not be published; the most predominant groups among that 30 percent were women, racial minorities, and urban residents.

The Reader, Stemple, and Daniel study also showed another important factor surrounding letters to the editor: that “the higher a person’s education level, the more likely he or she is to write a letter and get it published.”

As evidenced by the fact that large numbers of people said they would write letters to the editor were they able to remain anonymous—especially minority groups—the problem with must-sign policies in newspapers is that these forums that are supposed to be a resource for all become—in practice—a place where those who cannot, for whatever reason, sign their name to their letters are effectively forced into silence.