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This book provides an account of current work on letters to the editor from a range of different national, cultural, conceptual and methodological perspectives. Letters to the editor provide a window on the reflexive relationship between editorial and readership identities in historical and international contexts. They are a forum through which the personal and the political intersect, a space wherein the implications of contemporaneous events are worked out by citizens and public figures alike, and in which the meaning and significance of unfolding media narratives and events are interpreted and contested. They can also be used to understand the multiple and overlapping ways that particular issues recur over sometimes widely distinct periods. This collection brings together scholars who have helped open up letters to the editor as a resource for scholarship and whose work in this book continues to provide new insights into the relationship between journalism and its publics.



Chapter 1. Introduction

This chapter presents a rationale for the examination of letters to the editor and reader engagement as historically and culturally significant practices. We outline some key challenges and benefits that arise from examining this rich, and under-utilised, record of reader interactions with print press over an extended period. We also argue that these engagements are historically, geographically and culturally mediated. We propose a broad agenda for the examination of the ways letters to the editor evidence mutable and diverse forms of reader engagement, one which links together ideas around political agency, citizenship, performativity and reader identity.
Allison Cavanagh, John Steel

Chapter 2. Regular Letters-Writers: Meanings and Perceptions of Public Debate

Letters to the editor and online comments constitute two of the most recognized public forums where readers work out current events and issues of common concern. But unlike the correspondence section, online comments are attached to the original story and may also imply a different audience—posting is simple, quick and easy, while submitting a letter requires extra effort and time. Even in the context of newer forms of engagement, letters to the editor thus remain an important vehicle of readers’ opinions in mainstream media publications around the world (Perrin, A. J., Since this is the editorial section I intend to express my opinion: Inequality and expressivity in letters to the editor, The Communication Review, 19: 55–76, 2016; Silva, M. T., As cartas dos leitores na imprensa portuguesa: uma forma de comunicação e debate do público. Covilhã: Livros LabCom, 2014).
This article investigates letters-writers’ perspectives and attitudes on public communication, participation and debate. Taking previous findings on letters and online comments in Portugal (Silva, M. T., A voz dos leitores na imprensa. Um estudo de caso sobre as “cartas ao director” no jornal Público. Lisboa: Livros Horizonte, 2007; Portuguese press and its public. Perceptions and motivations. Revista Media e Jornalismo, 8(14), 85–107, 2009; Newsroom practices and letters to the editor. An analysis of selection criteria. Journalism Practice, 6(2), 250–263, 2012; As cartas dos leitores na imprensa portuguesa: uma forma de comunicação e debate do público. Covilhã: Livros LabCom, 2014; What do users have to say about online news comments? Readers’ accounts and expectations of public debate and online moderation: A case study. Participations. Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 12(2), 32–44, 2015), our goal is to uncover the meanings that the so-called professional letter-writer—the identified group of regular writers, some writing more than one letter a day on the widest variety of subjects (Raeymaeckers, K., European Journal of Communication 20:199–221, 2005; Silva, M. T., Um estudo de caso sobre as “cartas ao director” no jornal Público. Livros Horizonte, Lisboa, 2007)—attributes to mediated spaces of participation, relying on interviews and/or questionnaires to frequent letters-writers in the Portuguese press.
Marisa Torres da Silva

Chapter 3. Speaking as Citizens: Women’s Political Correspondence to Scottish Newspapers 1918–1928

Between 1918, when some women achieved the Parliamentary vote, and 1928, when all women over 21 achieved franchise equality with men, the correspondence columns of Scottish newspapers were used as a place—a ‘public sphere’—within which women could perform their new role as citizens. Women used letters to the editor to assert their claims to citizenship and encourage some women to enter political office. However, women correspondents to newspapers did not fully enter the public sphere. Instead, they mostly inhabited a smaller feminine public sphere within the correspondence columns, entering into debate with other women, and focused on what might be deemed ‘women’s issues’ in their letters. Women were encouraged and supported in their first steps into politics by organisations such as the Women Citizens Associations, which were led by women who had been leading suffragists and suffragettes in Scotland. Other women entered into this feminine public sphere to urge their sisters to return to the domestic sphere. There is therefore a need for the incorporation of the concept of the ‘counterpublic’ when discussing correspondence pages as part of the public sphere, and an acknowledgement of the continuation of a feminine public sphere within which women learned—or were told—which issues were deemed to be legitimate ‘women’s issues’.
Sarah Pedersen

Chapter 4. Letters to the Editor in the Chicago Defender, 1929–1930: The Voice of a Voiceless People

A good researcher can walk into nearly any decent university research library across the country and easily find copies of major metropolitan newspapers such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, dating back at least 100 years. And, as a result, studying the historical record of letters to the editor in those publications is relatively easy. This exciting work is being undertaken by more and more journalism historians and it is a project that should be strongly supported. But what about if one is trying to find letters to the editor in the Chicago Defender, one of the largest and most influential black newspapers in the United States? Or what about some other major black newspapers, such as the Baltimore Afro-American, The Indianapolis Recorder or Los Angeles California Eagle? The sad answer is that the voice of the black press is largely missing from the historical record and from most libraries.
What is missing and is necessary is a systematic study of the history and content of published letters to the editor in African-American newspapers. This chapter attempts to undertake two tasks—to explore some of the major themes in the letters in a dozen African-American newspapers over three different time periods, 1929, 1968 and 1972, and, secondly, to call for more such research into the letters to the editor in the black press.
Robert S. McElvaine has written that the history of a people in a given historical period must begin with the testimony of the people themselves. He argues historians need to let the people speak for themselves. He wrote: “If you want Negro history you will have to get it from somebody who wore the shoe, and by and by, from one to the other, you will get a book.”
What is unique about this research and this chapter is an attempt to collect, analyze and categorize the voice of at least some African Americans, that is, some of the people who wore the shoe––in the form of published letters to the editor and editorials in prominent African-American newspapers during a time of crisis. To paraphrase McElvaine, the voice of these people has been forgotten for so long, not because they were silent, but because their stories were not valued.
Stephynie C. Perkins, Brian Thornton, Tulika Varma

Chapter 5. Letters to the Editor in Colombia: A Sanctuary of Public Emotions

In Latin America, Letters to the Editors (LTE) reflect the constant collective struggle of its people. The situation of Colombia is particularly interesting: this country has been strong in its democratic ideals, despite the threats originated by a long internal conflict between the State with guerrilla groups, drug trafficking, corruption in public and private institutions, among other issues, which have created a wide range of social problems, poverty, and inequality. In that sense, Colombia urgently needs more spaces for its civil society to participate and let their voice be heard for the recently agreed Peace Accord to be long-lasting. While most of the time LTE exemplify an open and constructive forum where readers contribute and participate in political and social life, this section remains unheard, in opposition to violent protests and other actions of social mobilization that are more spectacular but often carry anger and polarization. In Colombia, letters reflect collective values and within the same country, one can identify different emotional approaches to the same reality. Hence, some extra effort is needed in order to recognize what lessons can be learned when letters are considered a legitimate collective expression.
Marta Milena Barrios, Luis Manuel Gil

Chapter 6. Letters to the Editor as a Tool of Citizenship

This chapter presents findings from a comparative study of a range of UK based newspapers of the nineteenth century. It examines the ways in which the practice of letter writing to national newspapers supported the development of citizenship as an extensive and multi-faceted project. Arguing against more restrictive versions of citizenship operationalised in Habermassian ideals of the public sphere, this chapter contends that much can be gained from applying wider ideas of the nature of the citizen that are emergent in analyses of contemporary reader participation. It examines the ways nineteenth-century readers understood the practice of writing letters to newspapers and the forms of power implied in this, going on to look at how nineteenth-century writers ‘performed’ citizenship. Finally, it considers the manner in which letter writers made the ‘personal’ into the ‘political’ and constituted public issues. In so doing, it challenges the idea that Letters to the Editor should primarily be considered as an adjunct to editorial policy, or as responses to already pre-constituted issues. Rather, letters allow us to trace how issues become politicised. This is considered in respect of the ways writers engaged with the idea of being a citizen of a state that was becoming more intimately entwined into their lives and also, by contrast, increasingly remote. Against this background, letters provided a resource for individuals in re-developing their sense of themselves as citizens, engaging with new forms of mediated empowerment.
Allison Cavanagh

Chapter 7. The Struggles and Economic Hardship of Women Working Class Activists, 1918–1923

The chapter analyses female readers’ letter from the immediate post-World War I period in the ‘Labour Women’ newspaper for members of the then up and coming Labour Party.
  • What was the discursive function of this particular women’s labour movement newspaper when addressing gendered employment issues?
  • How does this social movement communication contribute towards the concept and development of gendered working class cultural citizenship?
Research demonstrates a range of concerns during the aftermaths of war, when many women showed great concern for what one letter referred to as the ‘tyranny of poverty’ and the day to day travails of domestic life, in an age where working class female lifestyles could not benefit from labour saving devices. This was a time when wage and relationship equality were nowhere near part of everyday reality for most readers. The chapter reflects not only on the problems for gender newspaper historians of reflection on past reader participation, influenced by present day perspectives, but also on the need to celebrate the hope and idealism of many female ‘reader—pioneers’.
Jane L. Chapman

Chapter 8. Readers’ Letters to Victorian Local Newspapers as Journalistic Genre

Letters to the editor in English local newspapers in the second half of the nineteenth century were a journalistic genre, although presented as if written by non-journalists. They were journalistic in that they were selected, edited and occasionally written by journalists. This high degree of mediation limits their use in assessing public opinion, although quantitative analysis reveals suggestive patterns, and analysing them in aggregate offers more reliable conclusions than placing too much weight on any individual letter. These letters were mainly on local matters, overwhelmingly negative, and usually ‘talked past each other’ (Wahl-Jorgensen, K., Journalists and the Public: Newsroom Culture, Letters to the Editor, and Democracy. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2007, 198), although there was some genuine debate. Pseudonyms, which became less popular, were used rhetorically, and gave anonymity, especially for women and working-class letter-writers. The public sphere probably became more bourgeois, despite growing working-class readership, and more splintered, but did not decline. This is the first systematic study of readers’ letters in the mainstream Victorian press (i.e. newspapers produced outside London). Local weekly newspapers have been chosen because they were the most popular mass media product of the second half of the nineteenth century, their letters were probably less mediated, and in aggregate, they give a national picture. This study uses content analysis and close reading of letters in newspapers in Preston, Lancashire, combined with evidence from the trade press, memoirs, company histories of newspapers and private correspondence.
Andrew Hobbs

Chapter 9. The Possibilities and Limits of “Open Journalism”: Journalist Engagement Below the Line at the Guardian 2006–2017

Over the past two decades with the rise of digital media, newspapers across Western democracies have been increasingly adopting new forms of online participatory journalism. During this time, “below the line” comment spaces have grown to be one of the most popular forms of user-generated content. Comment spaces are thought to perform a multitude of functions. However, much has been made about their potential as spaces for public debate that could act as a new form of the public sphere where journalists can hear from, and directly engage with, their readers. Survey and interview research has suggested that some journalists do read, and sometimes engage in, comment sections. However, no study has systematically analysed how journalists actually engage in comment spaces; what factors shape such engagement; and how this has evolved over time. In this chapter, we begin to fill in these gaps by investigating how Guardian journalists behave below the line. Our research, which draws upon a multi-method approach and longitudinal research dataset, included a manual content analysis of all comments made (2006–2017) by 26 journalists (n = 5448) and 18 semi-structured interviews conducted in two phases (13 in 2012 and 5 repeated in 2017–2018). Our chapter sheds light on how journalists behave below the line and what this might mean for journalism practice in the digital age.
Todd Graham, Daniel Jackson, Scott Wright


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