Why editorial page editors need to know something about data bases
April 25th, 2005 by JTJ

Dan Gillmor picks up a story from California's Contra Costa Times about
a Republican operative who has been sending phony letters-to-the-editor
bashing Demos, more than 200 letters for the past 10 years.


According to the CC Times story….

letters have a tremendous effect on the readers,” Times Editorial Page
editor Dan Hatfield said. “People need to be able to know that the
letters to the editor are real people, writing about real issues. They
need to be able to believe what they read in the newspaper. The
discovery of false letters makes the reader wonder about the veracity
of the opinions on our pages….

“Hatfield said the paper has tightened its policy, but there is no way to screen writers intent on breaking the rules….

The Times, [San Francisco] Chronicle and [Tri-Valley] Herald have similar
letter to the editor verification policies. A writer must provide his
or her resident city and phone number. A newspaper employee then calls
the writer to verify that they sent it in.

there is not a fail-safe way that I have found. No matter how elaborate
the system one designs, there is always some knucklehead out there who
wants to ruin it for everyone by proving that he or she can beat it.”

Maybe not a “fail-safe” way to stop this Astro-turfing, but stronger controls would be possible if an organization like the American Press Institute or Newspaper Association of American
would create an online data base that all newspapers could have access
to.  The calling-to-check approach is pretty standard in the
business.  Each letters editor could enter the pertinent info on
the writers they decide to publish into the data base.  It
wouldn't take much programming to do some automated data mining on
phone numbers and/or cities or addresses or spelling patterns of names
for flags to be raised.  Sure, someone could always have a couple
phone numbers and even a couple mailing addresses.  But 200? 

As to text analysis that could be applied to the language of the
letters-to-the-editors, see the IAJ link lower right to Don Foster's
book, Author Unknown.

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