By Todd Jackson
Unlike many written works, a newspaper aspires to be an active component in the infrastructure of the community. Rather than generating paragraphs to be privately considered, a newspaper should be a public work that serves as a conduit for thoughts.
Often it’s as simple as a basis for discussion. The paper supplies a thought that can lead to conversations on those thoughts.
The paper can also participate in the dialogue. Rather than merely causing ideas to scatter away from the paper, sometimes a reaction finds its way back to the source in the form of a letter to the editor.
This section of the newspaper is vital. Only a meagre few get the chance to regularly broadcast their ideas. And through writing a letter to the paper, the readership can participate in the interface between the community and the publication.
However, some letters are better than others. A successful letter adds a new thought to the discussion–a new level of sophistication, an overlooked perspective. This holds for positive and negative feedback. But many letters aren’t so helpful and it’s easy to spot the difference.
The rant holds a special place in my heart. It takes an interesting level of hubris to set someone straight and I’ve often wondered what must fire in the minds of the irate. Do they worry about the corrupting influence an article has in society? Perhaps, but most of the reactions aren’t so heady. I think it comes down to this: people get upset and they react.
At a local level it’s the same level of discourse as road-rage. Someone disrespects your authority and you flip the finger and holler. When a letter comes in to the paper with the same tone, the intent is comparable–a few words sent to assert some potency. But just like on the road, these are pathetic reactions to a complicated situation disregarded by the letter’s author.
Rants should be handled like any act of violence. They deserve patience but disappointment because they shatter the possibility for real communication. If a journalist expresses an idea that we don’t agree with we first need to ask ourselves if we properly interpreted the article. Many ideas aren’t obvious and aspects like subtlety or satire may be easily missed. Then we need to think about why this idea makes us uncomfortable. More importantly, though, we need to ask why we want to respond and the difference this involvement will make.
Without this level of concern, the role of the paper will breach, with one distinct stream of thought coming from the journalists and another coming from the community. Interaction is replaced with segregation and the newspaper may as well be a bathroom wall–an available space for a loose assortment of commentary that coheres only because the words share a common surface.