Saturday, January 28, 2006

Truth and consequences ...

Dave Lull sends along a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review: The Secret Life of a Letter to the Editor . Am I alone in finding the outcome disturbing?


  1. I have been Letters (or Correspondence as we call it) Editor of Nature for many years, and the idea of a "template" letter for correspondents, whether to complain or not, is an anathema. It completely destroys the individual voice of the writer. The editor's role is to bring this out within journal style, not to suppress it.
    In this particular case, the cycling of a letter between correspondent and editor is "usual business", especially in an issue where liability issues are raised. (This is a much more serious issue in the UK than the USA, and editors can be held culpable as well as publishers.)
    However, as an editor, it seems to me that the letter as eventually published was a compromise forced on the correspondent, and which did not contain the essence of her complaint.
    In my view the role of the letters editor is to publish a lively page (or pages) of readers' reactions. If a complaint has to be published (and far more are received than are published; most are not valid or are trivial/self-serving), it should be edited so that the main complaint is clearly made so that readers can discern the argument. It is also the responsibility of the letters editor to ensure that a published letter is not actionable, but in this case I am sure that could have been achieved with a less anodyne final version. (I do write with years of experience of this kind of thing, and an appreciation of the depth of the emotions involved.)
    Of course, the journal can always reserve the option of publishing a response to letters such as the one given here, in my view this is usually a cop-out, but why did the New Yorker not let the complainant have her (well-supported) say, and add a response from the journalist, if it felt the need to defend itself rather than let the article and letter speak for themselves? This would surely have been a better solution than censorship?

  2. What you say, Maxine, is precisely what I thought upon reading the piece (though you obviously can draw on a lot more experience than I can). To be honest, I was surprised that Ms. Lawson didn't have her lawyer handle the matter.