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Subject: AEJ 98 ThorntoB MAG What magazine letters to the editor say about journalism
From: Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 29 Nov 1998 06:58:22 EST
Content-Type:TEXT/PLAIN
Parts/Attachments:
Parts/Attachments

TEXT/PLAIN (1835 lines)


Reviewing The Record: What Magazine Letters to the Editor Said About Journalism
in 1962, 1972, 1982 and 1992.
 
 
 
by
Brian Thornton, Ph.D.
 
 
Assistant Professor
Department of Mass Communications, Midwestern State University
3410 Taft Blvd., Wichita Falls, Texas  76308   (940) 397-4797
Home address: 4411 Montego Drive, Wichita Falls, Texas  76308
Home phone: (940) 696-2248
(940) 397-4797 Work
Fax (940) 397-4511
                              E-mail  [log in to unmask]
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A  paper accepted for presentation to the Magazine Division as part of the AEJMC
Annual Conference in Baltimore, Md., Aug. 5-9, 1998.
 
 
 
 
 
Reviewing The Record: What Magazine Letters to the Editor Said About Journalism
in 1962, 1972, 1982 and 1992.
 
 
 
by
Brian Thornton, Ph.D.
 
 
Assistant Professor
Department of Mass Communications, Midwestern State University
3410 Taft Blvd., Wichita Falls, Texas  76308   (940) 397-4797
Home address: 4411 Montego Drive, Wichita Falls, Texas  76308
Home phone: (940) 696-2248
(940) 397-4797 Work
Fax (940) 397-4511
                              E-mail  [log in to unmask]
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A  paper accepted for presentation to the Magazine Division Aug. 6, 1998 as part
of the AEJMC Annual Conference in Baltimore, Md., Aug. 5-9, 1998.
 
 
 
 
 
Reviewing the Record: What Magazine Letters to the Editor Said About Journalism
in 1962, 1972, 1982 and 1992.
 
 
        Public opinion surveys and journalism trade magazines such as Columbia
Journalism Review (CJR), and American Journalism Review (AJR) have documented
abundant animosity by readers toward journalists. For example, a recent CJR
cover story suggested many Americans regard modern journalists as "a generation
of vipers."[1] And a 1995 AJR article said journalists are "under siege" from
angry consumers of news. The story quoted six news executives who said Americans
feel "mistrustful, resentful, hostile and angry" toward journalists. Driving
this point home, Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the
People & The Press, was quoted as saying people believe the press hinders the
country's efforts to solve its problems.[2] The mainstream press has reported
much the same story. For example, Atlantic Monthly ran a cover story in 1996
explaining "Why Americans Hate The Media."[3] And in the wake of the death of
England's Princess Diana there was a spate of stories saying the public was fed
up with journalists who were seen as "barracuda," "jackals," piranha," and
"vultures" feeding on the misfortunes of others.[4] Another example of public
antipathy toward the press may be unfolding in the scandals embroiling the
Clinton presidency: President Clinton's soaring popularity, despite charges of
sexual misconduct, has been interpreted as a backlash against the press. In this
regard, various public opinion polls assert that people see reporters as "too
intrusive" and "sensationalistic" in that they pry into the private lives of
public officials.[5]
        While polls and articles are valuable second-hand barometers of public opinion,
a vital element is absent from these examinations: What is missing is the voice
of consumers of news directly expressing their own thoughts about the reporting
business. How do readers make sense of what they read? Opinion polls force
people to choose between limited options. But when given the ability to speak
with their own voice, and in their own words, what do readers say? What have
readers and viewers of news across the country written about the press, for
instance, and has that opinion changed over the past 30 years - for example,
reflecting more anti-press sentiment in the '90s than during the height of the
Watergate scandal or during the Kennedy administration?
        One way to tap directly into public discussion of journalism is to look at the
historical record of published letters to the editor. Media scholar David B.
Hill argues there is a strong link between public opinion and opinions expressed
in letters to the editor.[6] Hill's assertion may be problematic, given the
possible capriciousness of editorial selection of letters for publication.
Nevertheless, the historical record of published letters can provide valuable
insights into the tone or themes of public discussion of journalism and how
those themes changed over time. To discover just what the themes have been over
the past 30 years, and how they may have changed, this paper studies public
expressions about journalism and journalistic standards by looking at the
historical record of a selection of published letters to the editor from 1962,
1972, 1982 and 1992.
        To obtain a national view of public sentiment about journalism, letters to the
editor published in 10 national news magazines were examined in this study.
Letters to the editor from news magazine readers were studied because these
letters come from all parts of the country. In any given issue of a national
news magazine such as Time, letters might appear from readers from Bangor to
Honolulu and nearly all points in between. As a result, magazine readers can and
do engage in a nationwide discussion of issues rather than parochial
conversations about regional issues. Presidential candidates have long known
this - and fought hard to get stories printed in news magazines rather than
newspapers when they want their message to reach people from all walks of life
and to resonate throughout the nation.[7]
        Since news magazines usually come out weekly or monthly, the information in
them tends to summarize and reflect on longer trends than TV or newspapers
generally do. This same reflective quality is likely true in letters to the
editors - that is, magazine editors who are trained to seek out articles that
are reflective of larger national trends may be inclined to print letters that
are also more reflective of large issues.[8] Further, news magazines tend to
give more space to more letters to the editor than newspapers and allow those
letters to run longer.[9]
        One driving purpose of this research is to find out how many published letters
discussed journalism, what letter writers said about the press, and whether
there were any recurring themes. A further goal is to discover whether public
discussion about the press changed over the 30-year period. To answer these
questions this research examined all the letters printed in 10 popular news
magazines - a total of 15,024 letters. Out of this group, the letters that
discussed journalism - 3,689 - were analyzed in greater detail. The purpose is
to add some historical context to the ongoing conversation about journalism by
magazine readers.
        Journalism historian Hazel Dicken-Garcia argues such study is needed because
most media ethics literature lacks historical perspective.[10] Further, the
voice of the audience speaking about journalism standards has been almost
entirely missing from journalism history.
        Even as this examination of published letters to the editor is undertaken,
however, it must first be admitted that the historical study of such letters
offers many challenges. For example, the letters do not reflect the entire
public conversation about journalism that took place in the past. But as
journalism historian David Nord writes, letters to the editor provide a record
of at least a portion of the ongoing conversation of a community.[11]
        Nord's observation, however, does not reduce the difficulties inherent in this
field of study. For instance, editors act as gatekeepers, selecting which
letters to publish; in this way editors can fragment and distort public opinion
portrayed in letters to the editor.[12] For example, Time magazine editors say
they regularly receive about 50,000 letters to the editor each year from their
more than 4 million weekly readers. Time's editors usually publish only 1,000 to
1,500 of those letters annually, or about 3 percent of the total. But in a
yearly letter to readers in which the total of all letters to the editor
received during the previous year is listed, Time's editors state emphatically
that they publish a representative sample of the letters. The editors insist
they do not promote any social or political agenda in the letters they
print.[13]
        A further criticism of the study of letters to the editors is that editors
routinely censor letters critical of journalism. And thus, some critics argue, a
historical study of printed letters to discover what was said about journalism
is of limited value because letters about journalism may have been deleted by
overly sensitive editors.
        However, such a deliberate suppression of the public conversation of letters to
the editor seems unlikely. In the first place, such censorship would require a
deception of gigantic proportions, involving rival editors from diverse
political viewpoints. The various editors of the 10 independent magazines
examined in this study, ranging from the tiny leftist Progressive, with a
monthly circulation of about 40,000, to Time, with weekly sales of more than 4
million copies, would all have to agree to keep the number of letters to the
editor about journalism down over a period of more than 30 years. And if such a
conspiracy were uncovered it could shatter public confidence in these
publications. Stacking the deck in letters to the editor to squelch press
criticism may seem like a mild form of deception. But any amount of trickery is
seen by many press critics as being equivalent to being "a little bit pregnant"
- a little is all it takes.
        In sum, editors are gatekeepers. But it is unlikely that even acting in this
role, aggressively competitive editors from 10 different publications would ban
letters to the editor about journalism over a 30-year-period - especially
letters that might criticize rival publications or praise a magazine's staff for
doing a good job. Media scholars Hal Davis and Galen Rarick argue that newspaper
editors generally do not discriminate against letters that oppose their
newspapers' positions or criticize their reporters.[14] And many editors across
the country have repeatedly emphasized that same statement, insisting they feel
compelled to publish letters critical of the news business. New York Times
letters editor Robert Barzlay was quoted in a 1988 article saying "critics make
a big deal out of it (bias in letter selection). But there is no deal at all.
There is only one person who can manipulate letter selection at the Times and
that's me. And I am deadly neutral. I have no mission to protect the Times."[15]
The same is likely to be true for most editors of reputable news magazines. A
Newsweek reporter, for instance, with 20 years of experience writing for the
magazine, said recently it has long been a matter of pride at Newsweek that the
editors publish as many letters as possible that attack the magazine: "It was
and is like a badge of honor to show how tough we are," the Newsweek veteran
said.[16] The same is likely to be true for most editors of other reputable news
magazines.
        But even if all letters to the editor in all magazines have been manipulated by
editors, they still represent what readers saw in print. This is significant for
this reason: Simply by being published in a magazine's pages the letters to the
editor helped set the agenda for public discussion.[17]
        Nord describes letters to the editor as useful historical texts, despite their
shortcomings, because they reveal some readers speaking directly to - and often
shouting at - editors. Unlike other magazine readers who remain silent, those
whose letters to the editor were published at least left a permanent and public
account of their opinions of journalistic standards of the time. Nord argues
that a historical examination of letters to the editor can give us what we may
need most to construct a history of readership; that is, a glimpse into the past
of some actual readers reacting to content.[18]
         Nord is not alone in this observation. Mark Popovich and others have called
for more study about how magazine readers respond to content. Popovich writes
that there is little study of the "strength of the relationship readers may have
with magazines"; and "Without that kind of information we have a poor
perspective on the role magazines play in our society today."[19] Another
magazine historian, Lee Jolliffe, observes there is a scarcity of research into
audience reaction to magazine content. Jolliffe asserts that studies of magazine
audiences are needed to "show the exchange of influences between the editor, the
magazine text, the audience and society."[20]
        Looking at letters to the editors in magazines and comparing the themes and
numbers from different points in time can be a step toward the depth of research
Nord, Jolliffe, and Popovich call for. Moreover, such a study can help
researchers understand more about magazine readers and how those readers relate
to different publications - and how that relationship may have changed over a
period of years. The letter writers were and remain a literate, opinionated, and
highly visible portion of the population. Published letters to the editor offer
a significant view into a limited but influential world. One researcher
described letters to the editor as "more than a hot readership item . . . and
more than an access mechanism. It's a regional institution, combining some of
the elements of the town meeting, the rural party line, the loafers' bench on
the courthouse square and the continuing referendum."[21]
Why Consider 1962, 1972, 1982 and 1992?
        The time periods were initially selected for this study for several reasons.
First, 1972 was chosen because it was the year the Watergate scandal began to
unfold after five men were arrested June 17 for breaking into the Democratic
national headquarters in Washington, D.C. Soon after that the role of the press
in uncovering possible presidential wrongdoing began to be discussed all across
the country. Was the press out to get the president? Were journalists reporting
the news or creating it? Was all this talk of corruption just the work of some
biased muckrakers? It was almost impossible to avoid these kinds of public
debates during this presidential election year. As a result it seems a fertile
time for people to have written letters to the editor and discussed journalism.
        But to put 1972 findings in perspective it seemed logical to compare letters
from 10 years before that - that is 1962 - to see if 1972 represented an anomaly
in public letter writing about journalism. Some historians and politicians
suggest the public was less skeptical of the press in the '60s; a good way to
test this hypothesis was to look at how many letters were published about the
press in 1962 and what those letters said.
        Letters to the editor printed in 1982 were then selected for comparison - to
offer the perspective of a decade removed from the passion of Watergate. Would
letters to the editor still reflect as much heat and emotion about the press and
its journalistic standards eight years after Richard Nixon had finally been
forced out of office? The study set out to answer this question by looking at a
year that also saw interest soar in journalistic ethics, both in academia and in
the larger society. Many new books on the topic of journalistic ethics were
printed during this time. Furthermore, many new college courses on the topic of
journalistic ethics were added to the curriculum, and centers dedicated entirely
to the study of media ethics were established.[22] In addition, the press was
still at the center of controversy in 1982, as always - this time with people
complaining that the press was contributing to the worst recession in 40 years
with sloppy and sensationalistic doom and gloom economic reporting. As a result,
studying letters to the editor from 1982 seemed particularly attractive: Was all
the talk about media ethics by professionals reflected in letters from consumers
of news - the ordinary readers?[23]
        Finally 1992 was selected for study as another 10-year benchmark period simply
because it was once again a presidential election year. The press was once more
involved in covering another scandal involving a presidential candidate - this
time the Democratic contender, accused of having an adulterous affair.
Journalistic ethics once again came to the forefront  in this matter as many
people wondered how intently - and to what extent - the press should cover the
personal lives of politicians.
Previous Research
        There is a small but steadily growing body of material surrounding the
historical study of letters to the editor. Thematically the research about
letters to the editor can be largely divided into three categories: 1) The
hazards of trying to ascertain public opinion with certainty through letters to
the editor; 2) Conjecture about who writes letters; and 3) Discussion of why
people feel compelled to write letters to the editor.
        Category one, public opinion: Schulyer Foster Jr. writes that most letters to
the editor are negative or against something or somebody, be it war, the New
Deal or gambling. As a result, Foster argues that such negative letters can't
accurately measure public opinion.[24] In keeping with that argument, James
Cockrum asserts that letters nearly always react to stories covered but rarely
initiate discussion of new issues; this adds to the unreliability of letters as
a measure of public opinion.[25] That unreliability is also explored by David L.
Grey and Trevor Brown, who argue that published letters in presidential
elections are more likely measures of the gatekeepers' politics rather than the
views of the electorate.[26]
        Category two, writer identity: William D. Tarrant, who studied Eugene (Oregon)
Register-Guard letter writers, hypothesizes that regular writers are wealthier,
better educated, less mobile and more religious than average citizens.[27] Also
exploring the identity of letter writers, Sidney Forsythe's 1950 study found the
average age of those who write letters to the editor was 59; he concludes that
most letter writers are white, male, at least third- or fourth-generation
Americans, with above-average education, holding down white-collar jobs.[28] In
contrast, Gary Vacin found in a 1965 study that letter writers come from a wide
range of occupations.[29] In a further examination of letter writers, Emmett
Buell argues that the writers are too often dismissed as kooks, but in reality
are not significantly different from the general population;[30] however, David
Hill describes letter writers as mostly Republican, conservative and negative.
Despite his disclaimer about the bias of most letter writers, Hill uses letters
as a way to measure public sentiment about the Equal Rights Amendment.[31]
        Category three, reasons for writing: In their examination of why people write
letters to the editor, Hal Davis and Galen Rarick argue that one of the main
functions of letters to the editor is to give the irate, infuriated and
irritated a place to vent.[32] A 1966 study of published letter-writers in
Michigan, undertaken by John Klempner, offered nine reasons why people write
letters to the editor: 1.To make someone see the light; 2.To promote one's self;
3.To right a wrong; 4. Having been asked; 5. Enjoyment of writing; 6. Feeling
one had to write; 7. A sense of public duty; 8. To increase self-esteem; and 9.
For therapeutic benefits.[33] In keeping with this finding, Byron Lander argues
that letters to the editor function as a safety valve, allowing readers a
"catharsis to blow off steam in an unreasoned and emotional way."[34] Further,
additional news coverage of  certain events can prompt letters, as Steve
Pasternak and Suraj Kapoor assert in a 1980 article. The authors write that
there was a "dramatic increase" in letters to the editor in the 1970s because of
increased coverage of "letter generating topics" such as abortion, Watergate,
gun control and the Vietnam war.[35] David Pritchard and Dan Berkowitz, in a
1991 article, using a random selection of 10 newspapers, tested the hypothesis
that attention to crime in letters to the editor influences subsequent
front-page coverage of crime.[36]
        These authors, however, have not attempted to systematically track letters to
the editor in selected news magazines over a 30-year period as a way to gauge
some of the history of public discussion of journalism.
Methodology
        The magazines examined in this research were: Atlantic; Forbes; Harper's; Life;
The Nation; New Republic; Newsweek; The Progressive; Time; and U.S. News and
World Report. (The magazine selection process will be explained shortly.) All
letters to the editor published in these 10 popular news magazines in 1962,
1972, 1982 and 1992 - a total of 15,024 letters - were examined. Any letters
that discussed journalism - a total of 3,689 - were then analyzed in more depth.
        To be labeled as a letter about journalism, a letter simply needed to discuss
what a writer thought was good or bad reporting or complain or praise the news
media in some way. For example, a letter that said "We have to look at mass
media as an instrument to stir and provoke society,"[37] was considered a letter
about journalistic standards. Or if a letter suggested that, for example, "your
magazine is participating in the despicable practice of our modern press
community, first to build up a man to celebrity proportions and then to dump him
with complete disregard for truth,"[38] that too, was considered a letter about
journalistic standards. To put it simply, if a letter mentioned the news media
in any way, positive or negative, it was considered part of the discussion of
journalism.[39] As a test of coder reliability, all the 1962 letters were
double-coded by two separate researchers to determine if the letters were about
journalism. The results were then compared and coders agreed on all but three
letters - these three letters were then dropped from the study.[40]
                How The Magazines Were Chosen For Study
        The 10 magazines studied here represent a cross-section of the magazine field,
ranging from the conservative business publication, Forbes, to the left-wing
Nation. As a result, mainstream magazines with large circulations, such as Time
and Newsweek, which each week sell 4 million and 3 million copies, respectively,
were studied. Then for a different perspective, considerably smaller and more
specialized publications such as The Progressive, which sells only 40,000 copies
a month, and The Nation, which sells roughly 80,000 copies a month, were also
examined. More information about each magazine and how it was selected is
explained in the accompanying footnote.[41]
        Once the letters about journalism were collected, every letter was analyzed to
determine its theme. Roughly 10 thematic categories emerged as readers
"constructed" journalism in their remarks, describing in their own words the
various functions they thought the press should serve. Thus these categories
were derived from the readers' comments. The categories include truth telling,
objectivity, fairness, public service, moral force, sensationalism, free press,
trust, political non-partisanship, and privacy.[42] Each letter to the editor
could be and often was coded more than once if it discussed more than one
journalistic theme.[43] Once more, coder reliability was tested here by having
two people code the themes of the 1962 letters - and they agreed on the themes
of all but 37 letters. These contested letters were then left out of this study.
Findings: Dwindling Letters about Journalism
        In 1962 the 10 magazines published a total of 3,661 letters to the editor - and
2,445, or 66 percent, commented on journalism. (See Table 1). In 1972,
journalism was discussed in 954 letters out of 3,727 - or 25 percent of the
published letters. In comparison, in 1982 the 10 magazines printed a total of
176 letters to the editor about journalism - out of a total of 3,943 published
letters. That means journalism was discussed in only 4 percent of all the
letters published that year. Finally, in 1992, journalism was the subject of 115
letters out of a total of 3,693 published letters to the editor - roughly 3
percent of the total. This means that within 30 years the number of published
letters to the editor discussing journalistic standards in the 10 news magazines
decreased by more than 95 percent (declining from 66 percent to 3 percent).
 
Table 1.-Letters about journalism, by magazine.
 
   1962
  1972
  1982
1992
Atlantic
99
41
8
2
Forbes
172
45
1
1
Harper's
158
37
62
1
Life
673
233
2
2
Nation
161
41
29
17
New  Republic
109
38
20
15
Newsweek
353
294
15
41
Progressive
118
42
24
1
Time
602
183
9
19
U.S News
0
0
6
16
Totals
2,445
954
176
115
 
        Tables 2 through 5 clarify how the magazines varied in the number and
percentage of letters they printed about journalism in 1962, 1972, 1982 and
1992. For instance, looking at Table 2, it can be seen that Life magazine
published 673 letters to the editor about journalism in 1962, the highest number
of letters on the topic among all 10 magazines that year. In total, Life printed
921 letters to the editor in 1962. That means journalism was the focus of 73
percent of all the published letters in Life that year. In comparison, in 1962,
Atlantic magazine printed 93 percent, or 99 letters about journalism, out of a
total of 106 published letters. Then in 1972 the decrease in published letters
about journalism began. Newsweek printed 294 letters about journalism that year,
or 35 percent of a total of 824 published letters. That was the most journalism
related letters printed in all 10 magazines in 1972. Only Life came close with
233 letters about journalism. The downward trend in journalism letters continued
in 1982 when Harper's printed the highest number of letters about journalism, 62
letters out of 120 published letters to the editor. It should be noted that U.S.
News & World Report, which began publication in 1933, did not start printing any
letters to the editor until 1977. In 1992 the Nation and Time ran the highest
number of journalism letters among all 10 magazines - a mere 17 letters each.
 
Table 2.-Total letters & percent related to journalism, 1962.
1962
all letters
letters about journalism
% related to journalism
Atlantic
106
  99
 93%
Forbes
222
  172
 77%
Harper's
158
  136
 86%
Life
921
  673
 73%
Nation
239
  161
 67%
New Republic
143
  109
 76%
Newsweek
600
  353
 59%
Progressive
162
  118
 73%
Time
1,110
   602
 54%
U.S. News
0
   0
 0
Totals
3,661
  2,445
 66 %
 
Table 3.-Total letters & percent related to journalism, 1972.
1972
all letters
letters about journalism
% related to journalism
Atlantic
    123
  42
34 %
Forbes
    212
  45
21 %
Harper's
      93
  37
39 %
Life
1,024
233
23 %
Nation
    119
   41
34 %
New Republic
      89
   38
42 %
Newsweek
    820
294
35 %
Progressive
    142
   42
29 %
Time
 1, 105
 183
16 %
U.S. News
         0
     0
0
Totals
3,727
954
25 %
 
 
 
 
 
 
Table 4.-Total letters & percent related to journalism, 1982.
1982
all letters
letters about journalism
% related to journalism
Atlantic
    130
    8
6 %
Forbes
    308
    1
.3 %
Harper's
    120
  62
51 %
Life
    205
    2
.9 %
Nation
    184
   29
15 %
New Republic
    244
   20
8 %
Newsweek
    668
   15
2 %
Progressive
    168
   24
14 %
Time
 1, 080
     9
.8 %
U.S. News
    836
     6
.7 %
Totals
 3,943
  176
4 %
Table 5.-Total letters & percent related to journalism, 1992.
1992
all letters
letters about journalism
% related to journalism
Atlantic
    180
    2
.01 %
Forbes
    287
    1
.3 %
Harper's
    84
    1
1.1 %
Life
    126
    2
1.5 %
Nation
    227
   17
7.4 %
New Republic
    376
   15
3.9 %
Newsweek
    784
   41
5.2 %
Progressive
    169
     2
1.1 %
Time
    907
   17
1.8 %
U.S. News
    553
   16
2.8 %
Totals
 3,693
114
3 %
 
Findings: Themes
        Just as the number of letters to the editor about journalism varied over the
decades, so too did the leading themes reflected in the letters. Table 6 shows,
public service was the most frequently expressed theme of published letters to
the editor about journalism in 1962 - mentioned in 52 percent of the 1962
letters, or 1,295 letters out of 2,445 letters.
        In contrast with this public service theme, objectivity was the most common
theme of 1992 letters - the focus of 35 percent of the printed letters that
discussed journalism, or 40 out of 114 letters. A more detailed explanation of
the themes of the journalism letters - as these themes were suggested by the
letters themselves - follows below.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Table 6-Themes, numbers & percent, 1962
Themes 1962
Themes - 2,445 journalism letters
theme % - 2,445 journalism letters
Truth
   810 letters
33 %
Objectivity
   288 letters
11 %
Fairness
   456 letters
18 %
Public Service
1,295 letters
52 %
Moral Force
     58 letters
  2 %
Sensationalism
     14 letters
  .5 %
Free Press
       9 letters
  .3 %
Trust
       5 letters
  .2
Political Partisanship
     13 letters
  .5 %
Privacy
        0
 0
(Note that one letter can and often did contain more than one theme. As a result
the theme percentages often exceed 100 percent.)
 
Table 7-Themes, numbers & percent, 1972
Themes 1972
themes - 954 journalism letters
theme % of 954 journalism letters
Truth
294  letters
30.8 %
Objectivity
122  letters
12.7 %
Fairness
66    letters
6.9 %
Public Service
388  letters
40.6 %
Moral Force
89    letters
9.3 %
Sensationalism
17    letters
.02 %
Free Press
5      letters
.01 %
Trust
0
 0
Political Partisanship
2      letters
.08 %
Privacy
0
 0
 
Table 8-Themes, numbers and percentages, 1982
Themes 1982
themes - 176 journalism letters
theme % - 176 journalism letters
Truth
56 letters
31%
Objectivity
27 letters
15%
Fairness
26 letters
14%
Public Service
31 letters
17%
Moral Force
15 letters
8.5%
Sensationalism
13 letters
7.3%
Free Press
2   letters
.01%
Trust
13 letters
7.3%
Political Partisanship
1   letter
.01%
Privacy
0
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Table 9-Themes, numbers and percentages, 1992
Themes 1992
themes - 114 journalism letters
theme % - 114 journalism letters
Truth
25 letters
21%
Objectivity
40 letters
35%
Fairness
22 letters
19%
Public Service
22 letters
19%
Moral Force
7   letters
5.2%
Sensationalism
10 letters
9 %
Free Press
1   letters
.01 %
Trust
6   letters
5%
Political Partisanship
5   letters
4%
Privacy
1   letter
.01%
 
Table 10.-Themes in letters to editor about journalism, by magazine, 1962.
1962
Truth
Objectivity
Fairness
Public Service
Moral Force
Sensationalism
Free
Press
Trust
PoliticalPartisan
Privacy
Atlantic
28
10
10
67
0
2
0
0
0
0
Forbes
97
22
8
57
0
1
0
4
1
0
Harper's
54
27
48
78
6
2
2
0
0
0
Life
164
48
64
445
25
1
0
1
6
0
Nation
91
59
73
74
7
7
3
0
0
0
New  Republic
56
33
19
34
0
0
2
0
1
0
Newsweek
123
24
59
192
5
0
2
0
2
0
Progressive
26
13
2
58
11
1
0
0
2
0
Time
171
52
173
290
4
0
0
0
1
0
U.S News
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
 
810
288
456
1,295
58
14
9
5
13
0
 
Table 11.-Themes in letters to editor about journalism, by magazine, 1972.
1972
Truth
Objectivity
Fairness
Public Service
Moral Force
Sensationalism
Free Press
Trust
PoliticalPartisan
Privacy
Atlantic
20
2
1
13
10
 
 
 
 
 
Forbes
24
3
 
8
9
 
1
 
 
 
Harper's
12
4
3
20
2
 
 
 
 
 
Life
47
21
19
113
28
4
1
 
 
 
Nation
15
10
3
15
 
 
 
 
3
 
New  Republic
29
3
2
5
 
 
 
 
 
 
Newsweek
84
28
18
131
22
8
2
 
 
 
Progressive
11
8
 
20
3
 
 
 
2
 
Time
52
43
20
63
15
5
1
 
3
 
U.S News
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
294
122
66
388
89
17
5
 
8
0
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Table 12.-Themes in letters to editor about journalism, by magazine, 1982.
1982
Truth
Objectivity
Fairness
Public Service
Moral Force
Sensationalism
Free Press
Trust
PoliticalPartisan
Privacy
Atlantic
4
 
 
1
 
 
 
4
 
 
Forbes
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
 
1
0
Harper's
17
 
10
6
4
6
 
2
 
 
Life
1
1
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Nation
12
2
5
8
2
1
1
3
 
 
New  Republic
6
1
5
6
2
1
 
2
 
 
Newsweek
7
7
3
2
2
1
 
 
 
 
Progressive
7
12
 
6
4
3
 
 
 
 
Time
 
4
 
2
1
 
1
 
 
 
U.S News
2
 
2
 
 
1
 
2
 
 
 
56
27
26
31
15
13
2
13
1
0
 
Table 13-Themes in letters to editor about journalism, by magazine, 1992.
1992
Truth
Objectivity
Fairness
Public Service
Moral
Sensationalism
Free Press
Trust
Political Partisan
Privacy
Atlantic
 
 
1
 
 
1
 
 
 
 
Forbes
 
 
 
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
Harper's
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
1
Life
 
1
1
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
Nation
7
3
7
2
2
 
 
 
 
 
New  Republic
7
3
3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Newsweek
5
15
8
2
6
6
1
 
3
 
Progressive
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Time
3
8
1
 
4
 
 
 
 
 
U.S News
2
10
1
1
1
3
 
6
2
 
 
25
40
22
7
13
10
1
6
5
1
 
Public Service
        Public service was generally defined by letter writers as the willingness of a
publication to "instruct, to teach us how to be good citizens and to bring
beauty and intelligent reporting into our homes,"[44] as one Life magazine
reader wrote in 1962. Public service was further defined as journalistic
excellence, provided without fear or favor and without concern for financial
gain. When readers came upon stories with depth and perspective, demonstrating
extreme accuracy and sparking interest, they often commented on the story's
public service.
        For example, Martha Poling, of Circleville, Ohio, commended Life in 1962 for
serving its readers well and teaching them about the economy. "Millions of words
have been written about what is wrong with the economy. Yet in a few memorable
lines you were able to pinpoint our major problems and offer workable solutions.
It is time the American people demand more such journalistic honesty and
integrity."[45] Gloria Bond of New York City took a similar tone, commending the
public service provided by Life magazine through its willingness to print photos
by the "Negro" photographer Gordon Parks. "His splendid eye-catching high
fashion pictures in color, not only enhanced Life but gave many readers a
refreshing lift. The lovely Negro models prove that pulchritude is not possessed
exclusively by one race. You have taught us a great lesson in race
relations."[46]
                                        Objectivity
        Each letter-to-the-editor writer defined objectivity a little differently. But
as a group, the letters about objectivity agreed that this ideal called for
reporters to purge themselves of prejudices and biases. And in 1992 most letter
writers complained that they rarely saw objectivity in practice. A 1992 letter
seemed to sum up this point when Nashville letter writer W. Scott Benton wrote
that "I am frustrated and concerned that in a time of constant media attacks
against everyone and anyone, an unbiased report is rare if not impossible to
find."[47] Another 1992 letter said male editors don't understand that "date
rape is not an insignificant, foolish issue." But the letter asserted that
editors encourage women reporters to write as much. "The lesson: Women
journalists can go far if they adopt this attitude in their writing and attack
feminism."[48]
        Letter writers repeatedly expressed their disappointment over a perceived lack
of objectivity on many subjects in 1992, when complaints about objectivity
seemed to blossom in nearly every issue of the 10 magazines studied. Here are a
few examples: "It is clear you suffer from a male bias. Although I opted for
breast implants, I am not a bimbo or a Stepford wife, and I resent your
name-calling. With these erroneous and cruel labels you deny the essence of
femininity, compassion, understanding and the capacity to nurture."[49] That is
what Ann Grossman of Yardley, Pennsylvania, wrote in a 1992 letter to Newsweek.
Robert Gonsalves of Crockett, California, wrote that Newsweek starts with a
premise and then proceeds to prove it, without studying the facts objectively:
"I'm getting tired of Newsweek's unprofessional preemptive strike against any
conspiracy theorists. You dissuade people from investigating the evidence and
thinking for themselves."[50]
        In addition to the previously discussed themes of public service and
objectivity  - the number one themes in 1962 and 1992, respectively - a total of
eight other themes emerged from the letters. In the interest of brevity, three
of the most significant themes - truth telling, fairness and moral force - are
discussed in more detail below.
Truth Telling
        Truth-telling letters were straightforward in their complaints about the press.
An example of this clear-cut discussion is a 1982 letter in the Progressive that
said: "Your December cover story on garbage was strewn with half-truths,
marvelously misleading statements, and soft-headed analysis. It is the silliest
story on resource recovery that I have seen in my five years working in resource
recovery. Let me try to straighten things out."[51] A letter in Atlantic
magazine in 1972 asserted simply that a reporter for the magazine had trouble
grasping basic facts - this time, geography. "Has your Mr. Manning changed the
course of the Potomac? Or has he simply neglected to look at a map? He writes
('In the City of Power,' December, 1971) that: 'the fetid section of Virginia
that George Washington chose as the cite for the Federal City of the new
republic is today a somewhat cosmopolitan and, in places, beautiful city.' He
obviously refers to Washington. But what is now the District of Columbia was
never part of Virginia; in colonial times it was in Maryland."[52]
Fairness
        Fairness was defined broadly by letter writers as a willingness to print many
points of view about a given issue. A New Republic reader put the discussion of
fairness this way in a 1992 letter, saying the magazine "takes the cake for
publishing one of the most outright blasphemous, racist and unfair articles to
date . . . If you ever bother to balance your articles with what some of the
rest of us have to say . . . for once you'll be honest journalists."[53] Bruce
Joyce of Columbia University put the discussion of fairness this way in a 1972
letter to Harper's: "That you permitted the publication of an unabashed
selection of wholly negative evidence [about the effects of early education] is
totally unfair and hard to understand."[54] Joyce's comments seemed to be echoed
some 10 years later in a letter in the same magazine by William Brady, of Little
Rock, Arkansas who said "I am utterly and frankly amazed that your magazine, any
respectable magazine, would actually print such an unfair piece of work. One
might expect such one-sided treatment from the National Enquirer or the like.
But readers of Harper's deserve better."[55]
Moral Force
        The number of letters about the the role of the press as a moral force was
never high. But discussion of the topic was lively. Here is an example: "It is
unlikely that Time would present a cover story on the latest trend in male
physiques as it did with women in 'The New Ideal of Beauty.' By printing such an
article Time acts as a moral leader and perpetuates society's ideal that a
woman's appearance has a lot to do with her worth as a human being," wrote Ann
Kelly, of Manlius, New York.[56]
        Irvin Cady, of Alpena, Michigan, wrote in 1972 that Atlantic magazine should
consider what moral lessons it was teaching when it printed article that used
"vulgar words." The story could have been printed "in a more subtle manner and
it would have been just as interesting without the so-called avant-garde
phraseology; in other words, just plain smut," Cady wrote.[57]
Discussion/Analysis
        In sum, these findings offer strong primary evidence that the most popular
themes of printed letters to the editor in the 10 magazines changed from 1962 to
1992, from a concern with public service to a concern with objectivity. Thus in
1962, most letters to the editor about journalism discussed how the magazines
were performing a public service by shedding light on a particular problem and
educating the public about a situation that needed to be rectified. That same
public service theme was still predominant in 1972, but the second most common
refrain that year was that reporters couldn't get their facts straight, either
as a result of carelessness or reckless indifference. The message about
inaccuracies and a lack of truth became the dominant theme of the published
letters in 1982. But by 1992 there was a slightly different spin: Letter writers
were still angry about inaccuracies, but now 35 percent were saying that because
of a variety of built-in biases and prejudices the reporters were incapable of
ever discovering or telling the truth: Reporters were male-biased, or too
conservative, or not ethnic enough or too anti-religious, readers said - and
there was little chance that this lack of objectivity could or would ever
change.
        In addition to revealing these themes and the fact that they changed over a
30-year period, this research shows that the number of published letters to the
editor about journalism in 10 magazines declined substantially from 1962 to 1992
- down from 2,445, or 66 percent of the total, to 115 letters, or 3 percent of
the total.[58]
        A cynic might dismiss this decrease, saying it merely reflects editors
censoring comments about journalism. But an important point to keep in mind is
that the research presented here analyzed any letters about journalism -
positive or negative. If editors were manipulating letters to the editor for 30
years, they would likely print positive letters and delete negative ones. But
the historical record shows no overwhelming flood of positive letters about
journalism - and no shortage of negative letters. Instead in 1982 and 1992 there
was a mere trickle of any journalism letters at all - 4 percent and 3 percent,
respectively. Sometimes the simplest explanation is best - perhaps there are
fewer published letters about journalism simply because people are writing fewer
letters on the topic.
        Some may claim the changing media world can explain the steady decline in
letters about journalism: Perhaps in 1962 there were few places to sound off
about the media other than letters to the editor pages. By 1992, it could be
asserted, those who wished to ventilate about media standards could use the
radio and TV. But this assertion loses its strength when one considers the usual
broadcast media roles: How many letters to the editor about journalism does
Peter Jennings read on World News Tonight? And although Howard Stern and Rush
Limbaugh may laughingly ridicule one or two letters from irate listeners per
year on their radio shows, this hardly constitutes a satisfying public outlet
for media criticism. The fact is that outside of talk radio, which has a limited
constituency and appeal, the broadcast media do not offer many consistently
available opportunities for public feedback.
        Could the Internet account for declining published debate about journalism in
magazines? This scenario, suggested by some critics, seems unlikely, given the
time period studied here -1962, 1972, 1982 and 1992. In 1962 and 1972 there was
no Internet access for the average person. And then between 1982 and 1992 this
new medium was still in its infancy. It involved only a fraction of the American
population.
        A reviewer of an early draft of this research suggested this paper is actually
a gatekeeper study revealing only what editors were willing to publish about
their own product. So be it. Until now the historical record of published
letters in magazines has been unexamined. No one has known what letters
published in magazines have said about journalism, and whether the letters have
increased, decreased or stayed the same over the past 30 years.
         Another critic has responded to this research by saying that magazines in the
1980s and 1990s prostituted themselves to please advertisers and therefore
eliminated critical letters about journalism. It is hard to determine the
validity of such a claim. But even if it is true, this paper needs to be widely
circulated and discussed - if only as partial evidence that the relationship may
have changed in recent years between magazine letter writers and the editors. If
the walls have come down at news magazines and advertisers are indirectly
causing the elimination of letters about journalism, this possibility needs to
debated among journalism scholars - and declining journalism letters may provide
a vital clue.
        This paper offers a simpler alternative explanation, however: The decrease of
published letters discussing the news media in all 10 contemporary magazines
over a 30-year period suggests readers may have lost interest in journalism and
simply wrote less commentary on the subject. It is easy to simply say no one
writes letters anymore. But that assertion does not explain the average of
50,000 letters to the editor received each year at Time magazine.
        The evidence from this research into the thematic content of the contemporary
letters suggests that many of today's magazine readers write letters to the
editor, but on subjects other than the press. And the 3,693 letters to the
editor printed in 1992 in the 10 magazines studies strongly support this notion.
The total number of published letters in the magazines barely changed from 1962,
when 3,661 letters were printed. Perhaps there is a combination of factors at
work - readers writing fewer letters on the subject and editors intuitively
thinking people don't care about journalism and deciding to publish fewer
journalism letters. This, in turn, could cause people to write even fewer
letters about a subject they rarely see covered.
        Another interesting finding in this research is the disconnect between what
reporters think is important for readers to know about and what readers comment
about in their letters. This examination into the record of published letters
was started with the expectation that many of what the press considered major
scandals of 1962, 1972, 1982 and 1992 would be reflected in letters to the
editor; that is, letter writers would comment on these topics. For example,
Watergate received front-page coverage in 1972. But few letters to the editor
commented on the Watergate scandal. Another disconnect: In 1982 the World
Almanac listed the year's recession, the worst in 40 years, as one of the major
news events. But again, few, if any, letters to the editor commented on it. That
same year Columbia Journalism Review and other journalism publications asked
what role, if any, the press played in contributing to 1982 economic problems
with perhaps overly pessimistic financial reporting. But published letters to
the editor didn't ask these kinds of questions in 1982. Finally in 1992 it
seemed clear there would be many letters commenting on press coverage of Bill
Clinton's alleged marital infidelities, since the press had covered the issue so
extensively. But once again, few published letters to the editor discussed this
topic.
        Instead, the handful of letters in 1992 that discussed journalism focused on
more basic issues - such as whether reporters can step outside their narrow
prejudices and biases and report the news in an objective fashion. The letter
writing public seemed genuinely unconcerned with President Clinton's alleged
paramour, Gennifer Flowers, and whether the press should pursue her into her
bedroom. Instead the small cadre of readers interested in journalism questioned
reporters' abilities to relate information objectively.
        Declining journalism letters may indicate a growing public alienation from the
press. This sense of alienation permeates the published letters in 1992. As
might be expected, many readers in 1962, 1972 and 1982 expressed anger at the
press, especially when reporters couldn't seem to get basic data correct, such
as the location of a river or the business track record of a prominent Wall
Street investor. But by 1992, quite the opposite attitude is evident in the
letters: Readers generally seem detached and mildly disappointed in their
letters, expressing the notion that the press didn't get things right, but that
nothing more can be expected from biased journalists. This pessimistic, cynical
and detached view of the press is a far cry from the criticism one might expect
to hear if readers truly believed in journalism and were concerned to find
instances of failure. The reader alienation from journalism uncovered in this
research may actually be more difficult for journalists to overcome - in much
the same way marriage counselors say a marriage is through, not when angry words
are spoken, but when there is no longer any talk at all. It is hard to repair a
relationship if couples no longer care enough to even bother to try to
communicate. The historical record of published magazine letters to the editor
from 1992 indicate readers may have cared little about journalism. As a result,
if this trend is continuing, the marriage between journalists and readers may be
perilously close to ending.
Conclusion
        Further research should seek to explore the meaning of the decline in
journalistic discussion in magazine letters to the editor in more detail and
move toward definitive explanations.
        Nord says more audience studies are needed. "We don't need more philosophy, not
more theory about audience activity or passivity," he writes, "but rather more
empirical research, research that links actual readers with texts and historical
and social contexts."[59]
        This research argues for the historical importance of letters to the editor.
The absence of material in journalism history books on letters to the editor and
what they reflect about journalism is an oversight begging for correction.
Inclusion of such material in journalism history could add to the continuing
debate over journalistic standards and the role of the press. For too long
letters to the editor have been the elephant in the parlor that everyone
ignores: It is time to look at the elephant and see the creature for what it is,
a historical text - and not be obsessed only with how it wound up in the parlor.
        In the process of looking at the historical record of letters to the editor,
this research may contribute to a deeper understanding of audience reaction to
journalism in the past. Such knowledge can contribute to a greater awareness of
how the reader-magazine relationship has changed over time. Rather than relying
on secondary sources and assumptions about what magazine readers have said about
journalism in history, researchers need to find the voice of the public, some of
it expressed in letters to the editor, and include that in journalism's
historical record.
[1]  Paul Starobin, "A Generation of Vipers," Columbia Journalism Review,
March/April 1995, 25.
[2]  Linda Fibich, "Under Siege," American Journalism Review, September 1995,
16.
[3]  James Fallows, "Why Americans Hate The Media," Atlantic, February 1996,
45-73. This article was an excerpt from Fallows' book, Breaking the News: How
the Media Undermine Democracy (New York: Pantheon, 1996).
[4]  Jacqueline Sharkey, "The Diana Aftermath," American Journalism Review,
November, 1997, 19.
[5]  "What We Do Now," Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 1998, 25.
[6]  David B. Hill, "Letter Opinion on ERA," Public Opinion Quarterly 45 (Fall
1981), 384-92.
[7]  Michael B. Grossman and Marth J. Kumar, Portraying the President: The White
House and the News Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).
[8]  Lawrence J. Mullen, "An Overview of Political Content Analysis of
Magazines," in The American Magazine (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995),
40.
[9]  W. Russell Neuman, Marion R. Just, and Ann N. Crigle, Common Knowledge:
News and the Construction of Political Meaning (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1992).
[10]  Hazel Dicken-Garcia, Journalistic Standards in Nineteenth Century America
(Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 4.
[11]  David Nord, "The Nature of Historical Research," in Research Methods in
Mass Communication eds. Guido Stempel and Bruce Westley (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:
Prentice Hall, 1989), 290.
[12]  Despite the potential for abuse of power in selecting letters to the
editor, when most newspaper editors are surveyed they claim to promote a wide
diversity of views and to see letter columns as "a democratic exercise, balanced
fairly in content and access," according to Ray DeLong, "Readers Views Serve Two
Purposes," The Masthead 28 (Fall 1976), 10. Also see Leo Bogart, Press and
Public: Who Reads What, When, Where and Why (Hilldale, New York: Erlbaum, 1982),
230-34. Most reputable magazine editors express the same sentiments.
[13]  For an example of such a letter to the reader, see Time 20 Feb. 1989, 12.
In that article Time editors wrote that they received 51,000 letters in 1988 and
get that many, or more, every year. The editors also repeated that their letter
selection process is unbiased.
[14]  Hal Davis and Galen Rarick, "Functions of Editorials and Letters to the
Editor," Journalism Quarterly 41 (Winter 1964), 108-09.
[15]  Ralph Nader and Steven Gold, "Letters to the Editor: How About a Little
Down-Home Glasnost?" Columbia Journalism Review (September/October 1988), 55.
[16]  Personal interview with former Newsweek reporter Virginia "Ginny" H.
Carroll, at the Western Journalism Historians Conference, Feb. 28, 1998, in
Berkeley, California.
[17]  Numerous studies have looked at the agenda-setting process, starting with
Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw "The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass
Media," Public Opinion Quarterly, 1972, 176-187. McCombs and Shaw have updated
their work, along with co-author David Weaver, in Communication and Democracy:
Exploring the Intellectual Frontiers in Agenda-Setting Theory (Mahwah, N.J.:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.) Another particularly relevant discussion of
agenda-setting was written by Michael Bruce MacKuen, "Social Communication and
the Mass Policy Agenda," in Michael Bruce MacKuen and Steven Lane Coombs, More
Than News: Media Power in Public Affairs (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1981)
17-44.
[18]  David Nord, "Reading the Newspaper, Strategies and Politics of Reader
Response, Chicago 1912-1917," Journal of Communication, 45 (3), 1995, 67.
[19]  Mark Popovich, "Research Review: Quantitative Magazine Studies,
1983-1993," The American Magazine: Research Perspectives and Prospects (Ames,
Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1995), 32.
[20]  Lee Jolliffe, "Research Review: Magazine Editors and Editing Practices,"
The American Magazine, 64.
[21]  J. Clemon, "In Defense of Initials," The Masthead 28, 1976, 17.
[22]  Some prominent authors who published journalism ethics books in the early
1980s include: Lee Thayer, Ethics, Morality and the Media (New York, Hastings
House, 1980); Eugene Goodwin, Groping for Ethics in Journalism (Ames, Iowa: Iowa
State University Press, 1983); and Frank McCulloch, ed., Drawing the Line
(Washington, D.C.: American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1984). Two major
continuing workshops on media ethics were also established with cooperative
journalism industry-academic funding during this time as well: The
AEJMC/Gannett/University of Missouri Ethics Workshop and the Poynter Institute
for Media Studies Teaching Fellowship in Ethics. In addition, the Society of
Professional Journalists began to sponsor local media ethics workshops all
across the country during this time period.
[23]  Several studies have maintained that letters to the editor identify public
issues and concerns. See, for example, Ernest C. Hynds, "Editorial Pages are
Taking Stands, Providing Forums," Journalism Quarterly 53 (Autumn 1976), 532-35;
also see E. Hynds, "Editorial Page Editors Discuss Use of Letters," Newspaper
Research Journal (Winter-Spring 1992), 124-136. See also Leila Sussmann, "Mass
Political Letter Writing in America: The Growth of an Institution," Public
Opinion Quarterly 23 (Summer 1959), 207; Diane Cole, "Letters to the Editor: Who
Needs 'em? We Do," The Masthead 44 (Fall 1992), 7; and Tamara Anne Bell, "Using
Letters to Assess Public Opinion," (Master's thesis, University of Texas at
Austin, 1993).
[24]  H. Schuyler Foster, Jr., and Carl J. Friedrich, "Letters to the Editor as
a Means of Measuring the Effectiveness of Propaganda," American Political
Science Review 31 (February 1937), 71-79.
[25]  James Luther Cockrum, "A Study of Letters to the Editor Contributed to the
Dallas Morning News" (Master's thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1955), 52.
[26]  David L. Grey and Trevor R. Brown, "Letters to the Editor: Hazy
Reflections of Public Opinion," Journalism Quarterly 47 (Autumn 1970), 450-56,
471. Grey and Brown were supported in this assertion by a later study by Paula
Cozort Renfro, "Bias in Selection of Letters to the Editor," Journalism
Quarterly 56 (Winter 1979), 822-26.
[27]  William D. Tarrant, "Who Writes Letters to the Editor?" Journalism
Quarterly 34 (Fall 1957), 501-502.
[28]  Sidney A. Forsythe, "An Exploratory Study of Letters to the Editor and
Their Contributors," Public Opinion Quarterly 14 (Spring 1950), 143-44.
[29]  Gary L. Vacin, "A Study of Letter-Writers," Journalism Quarterly 42
(Summer 1965), 502.
[30]  Emmett Buell, Jr., "Eccentrics or Gladiators? People Who Write About
Politics in Letters to the Editor," Social Science Quarterly 56 (December 1975),
440-49.
[31]  David B. Hill, "Letter Opinion on ERA," Public Opinion Quarterly 45 (Fall
1981), 384-92.
[32]  Hal Davis and Galen Rarick, "Functions of Editorials and Letters to the
Editor," Journalism Quarterly 41 (Winter 1964), 108-09.
[33]  John Andrew Klempner, "People Who Write In: Communication Aspects of
Opinion Letter Writing," (Ph.D dissertation, Michigan State University, 1966).
[34]  Byron G. Lander, "Functions of Letters to the Editor -- A Re-Examination,"
Journalism Quarterly 49 (Spring 1972), 142.
[35]  Steve Pasternak and Suraj Kapoor, "The Letters Boom," The Masthead 28
(Fall 1976), 17.
[36]  David Pritchard and Dan Berkowitz, "How Readers' Letters May Influence
Editors and News Emphasis: A Content Analysis of 10 Newspapers, 1948-1978,"
Journalism Quarterly 68 (Fall 1991), 388-395.
[37]  Michael Schaffer, Lake Bluff, Illinois, U.S. News & World Report, 27 Jan.
1992, 8.
[38]  Norma K. Turner, Waterviolet, Mich., Atlantic February 1982, 5.
[39]  This study of letters followed standard historical methods of analysis of
documents. Similar to David Thelen's work in Becoming Citizens in the Age of
Television, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), this research was not
intended to be used to perform extremely sophisticated correlations and
relationships among the letters. Instead it simply involved counting letters
about journalism. This counting was closer to the historian's method of
accumulating examples than complicated and detailed scientific coding.
[40]  Limited funds were available to hire a second coder for only a portion of
this research, so 1962 letters were randomly chosen for double-coding as a
sample test of the reliability of the coding process. The second coder was
initially told to use his own judgment and decide if a letter seemed to be about
journalism, or simply a general comment on a subject.
[41]  The magazines were chosen for their diverse political slants and varying
circulation figures. The intent was to gather magazines from the left, right,
and middle of the road and to mix large circulation publications with more
esoteric, small magazines. Specifically, the selection was done this way:
Atlantic, with a circulation of 464,709, as of 1992, has a heavy literary
tradition and appeals to the up-scale intelligentsia, a group that seemed likely
to be willing and able to write letters to the editor; Forbes, with a 1992
circulation of 777,353 and a Wall Street focus, is considered right-wing,
conservative, and was studied to balance the views of more liberal magazines;
Harper's, 1992 circulation 218,219, is a literary and arts publication with
liberal, wealthy readers, who are articulate and also likely to feel comfortable
writing letters to the editor; Life, with 1.5 million subscribers as of 1992, is
a general interest publication that emphasizes capturing a wide range of readers
from various ends of the political spectrum; The Nation, with 82,788 subscribers
in 1992, is a narrowly tailored, left-wing publication with more radical
readers; The New Republic, circulation 98,252, was once considered liberal, then
transformed itself in the 1980s into a "new Right" publication, but was studied
here because of its extensive political reporting; Newsweek, with a 1992
circulation of 3.1 million, is one of the 20 best-selling magazines each year
and is aimed at a non-political, general audience of nearly all ages and
interests; The Progressive, circulation 40,000, a left-leaning publication, was
added to balance some views of the more conservative publications; Time,
circulation 4 million, is a highly commercial mainstream magazine, usually
ranked each year as one of the 10 best selling magazines in the country. Its
readers tend to be middle of the road, politically. Thus it was considered a
good place to try to sample "average" reader discussion of journalism; and
finally, U. S. News & World Report, with 2.2 million subscribers, is geared to
older, conservative, middle-class readers. All the circulation records come from
1992 Audit Bureau of Circulation reports.
[42]  The spirit of the coding that took place here was more in keeping with
qualitative, social science methodology than quantitative, physical science
methods. Both the categories and coding were driven by the readers' own words.
For example, many letter writers repeatedly discussed the word "truth," when
commenting on journalism - so that was one of the first categories initially
established. Then the concept of "objectivity" began to occur frequently in
letters, along with public service, moral force, and so on. The study started
with an examination of 1972 letters so most categories originally emerged in
that group. Letters from subsequent time frames contained similar discussions
and were gradually added to the count. At all times the researcher was open to
new categories, however, and gradually 10 categories were created to accommodate
journalistic standards mentioned by readers. When a second coder was employed,
the categories were explained to him; that is, the second coder was told that if
a letter discussed or mentioned the word truth in connection with journalism,
for example, then that letter could be labelled a letter about truth-telling.
There was no overriding theory driving the categories - if letters repeatedly
mentioned some standard for judging what was good or bad journalism, such as
sensationalism, or fairness, then that concept was added to the categories.
[43]  Despite a successful limited test of the 1962 classification of the
letters with a second coder, nevertheless readers are warned that the
categorization of 3,689 letters to the editor was inevitably a matter of some
subjective interpretation. Like a Rorschach test, subsequent researchers can and
could find different categories appropriate for the same letters.
[44]  Eugenia Wallace, Valparaiso, Indiana, Life, 15 June 1962, 28.
[45]  Martha Poling, Circleville, Ohio, Life, 29 June 1962, 15.
[46]  Gloria Bond, New York City, Life, 20 July 1962, 21.
[47]  W. Scott Benton, Nashville, Tennessee, Life, November 1992, 22.
[48]  Joanne Jacobs, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Nation, 20 April 1992, 506.
[49]  Ann H. Grossman, Yardley, Pennsylvania, Newsweek, 10 Feb. 1992, 14.
[50]  Robert Gonsalves, Crockett, California, Newsweek 13 Jan. 1992, 12.
[51]  Chaz Miller, Washington, D.C., The Progressive March 1982, 6.
[52]  Robert McClenon, Gaithersburg, Maryland Atlantic, February 1972, 39.
[53]  John McCaslin, Washington, D.C., The New Republic 16 March 1992, 5.
[54]  Bruce R. Joyce, Columbia University, New York, Harper's September 1972, 6.
[55]  William B. Brady, Little Rock, Arkansas, Harper's April 1982, 5.
[56]  Ann Kelly, Manlius, New York, Time 20 Sept. 1982, 5.
[57]  Irvin H. Cady, Alpena, Michigan, Atlantic, August 1972, 24.
[58]  One critic of an early draft of this paper requested that the editors of
the 10 magazines  be questioned to find out how they chose which letters to
publish in 1962, 1972, 1982 and 1992 and to discover exactly how many letters
were not published. This is a daunting task. For example, how many editors from
1962 are still working at the 10 magazines? And how many unpublished 1962
letters are still available for study? Even if all the editors could be found
and somehow interviewed and the reliability of their remarks determined, such
work is beyond the scope of this research. The purpose here is to examine the
historical record of published letters, not to engage in philosophical debates
about how letters are selected.
[59]  Nord, "Reading the Newspaper," Journal of Communication, 67, 88.

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