Originally written for eVent! magazine [ep] on 03/09/06.
One of my favorite things about a newspaper is the letters column. No other traditional media has the same sort of give and take, reader response section like a newspaper. You do not see the anchors of CHBC news taking time out of the show to read letters from their audience.
"Here's one from Carla in Westbank. She writes that if I knew how the government really worked I would not be so chipper when reading the news, and that my hair looks like a weasel is nesting on the top of my head. Well thank you Carla."
The trouble with the letters section, and this comes from years of having to edit a letters section myself, is that it does tend to suffer from squeaky wheel syndrome. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that the views expressed in letters are those of the majority of readers, when really they're more often than not simply the views on either extreme of an issue.
Every year at the student paper I used to edit we had a informal policy of letting a letter on the issue of abortion go in at the start of the year. No matter what the letter said it would guarantee that we would have no problem finding material to fill the letters section for the next few months. Letters from both sides would soon pile up, until we were good and tired of all the name calling and would once again declare that we would never run a letter on abortion again, at least not until we needed more letters.
Again though the way political discourse goes these days none of the letters we ran were particularly helpful on the issue. While they could be all well written and articulate at the end of the day they were either for abortion or against abortion and none of them every changed anyone's mind.
What I always waited for, hoped for, was a letter from someone in the vast majority of us who is just confused about the issue and not sure what to think. Those types of people tend not to write letters though, and so the letters column divides itself into two warring camps and sets the dialogue that way.
All of which sounds bleak, but that's not all that makes it into a letters section. Nay, there are an infinite number of issues to write about, from the local to the international. However there are a few basic types of letters that you see regularly in letters columns but they all amount to one theme, "Everyone should be more like me."
No, not like me. World would be a sad, sad place if everyone was too much like me. No rather it's the writers of letters to newspapers that wants everyone to be more like them.
Want Christmas to be celebrated in schools? Well if everyone was Christian then there'd be no problem with that. Don't want Christmas to be celebrated in schools? Well if everyone was non-Christian then there'd be no problem with that. Don't like new immigrants who have different cultures? Well if everyone was exactly the same we wouldn't have to adapt our culture to be more inviting to others.
Don't understand iPods, the MySpace, hip-hop or how teens can be allowed to stay awake past nine at night and kiss before marriage? Well if we were all seniors then Mattlock would be all the entertainment we needed. Don't like how the elderly smell, or how they always think it's important to be respectful and not talk only in cuse words and Dr. Dre lyrics? Well if we were all sixteen then it would all be cool, yo.
The number of conflicts, dramas, debates and arguments that play themselves out in a newspapers letters column is astounding. It's one of the things that sets a newspaper apart from nearly any other form of media. As much as I might mock it, or get depressed that at the section's tendency to only represent the extreme views on any particular topic, it's a wonderful part of the paper and almost always the part I read first.