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Letters to the Irresponsible

I know reading letters to the editor is not good for my health. I know that letter-writers are not representative of the population at large. I know that letters are included because they are likely to be controversial and dramatic. But still, I can’t stop.

It’s because I think letters to the editor are *important*. They matter for the simple reason that they’re right there on the editorial page of the newspaper, and they’re presented in small bite-sized digestible chunks, and they’re delivered in a tone that speaks of personal character rather than impersonal journalistic machine. They are the easiest reading in the newspaper.

And so it bugs me when the same negative things turn up over and over again. Particularly, speaking of the DomPost, there’s racism against Maori. Hardly a week goes by without Maori described as selfish, devious, dishonest, stupid, or worse. (And, almost without exception, these charges are levelled at “Maori”, as if to describe the fundamental nature of everyone with Maori identity.) Sometimes this is delivered hand-in-hand with a claim that there are no true Maori left anyhow. It’s ugly, and it’s been prevalent as long as I can remember. Would it be a surprise to find that Maori feel they are misrepresented and unwelcome in mainstream media?

Almost as frequent these days is the culture war against Islam. You know the ins and outs of this one, it appears all over the world, and the NYC mosque controversy has stirred it right up. The claim that got me agitated this week was the old claim that “if Islam isn’t a religion of violence, then why haven’t Muslims denounced terrorism?” Of course, they have, Islamic voices have been plentiful in condemnation of terror attacks. Here’s one big list countering this myth; there are many others.

The reason this last one gets to me is that this wrong-headed belief exists in the first place because of the failings of our newspapers and other media outlets. The denunciation of violence has never drawn much presence in our news narrative, and so many people think it never happened. And now those same people use newspapers (and talk radio etc) to pronounce their misconception, to damaging effect.

Look at that again. The number of times newspapers, within their pages, print “why do Muslims not denounce violence?” must massively exceed the number of times newspapers have ever reported on Muslim denunciations of violence.

The media is responsible for the misconception. By then publishing these letters without answer, I think it is also responsible for its propagation.

What are the editorial responsibilities of newspapers? I know the DomPost editor takes the reader letters very seriously and personally checks each day’s selection. It seems to me this is a massive failure on her part. The responsibility to fairly present reader’s views does not remove the responsibility to correct an obvious factual misconception. “But our readers really think this” is an inadequate defence against the charge of spreading a damaging prejudiced myth, especially when the reason they really think this is your own failure to adequately describe the world.

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