Letters to the editor: A useful advocacy tool in today's media environment?

printer friendlyprinter friendly

When you think of letters to the editor, what comes to mind? An effective way of joining the conversation and getting your issue into the news, or an outdated practice that belongs to a time when news was consumed differently?

stack of newspapersAccording to Pew Research, the rate at which Americans are writing letters to the editor is decreasing. The latest data indicate that in 2012, only 3 percent of U.S. adults had sent a letter to the editor to a newspaper or magazine by regular mail, and 4 percent had done so online, by email or by text message. These numbers are down from 10 percent in 2008.

To put these numbers into context, in 2012, 18 percent of Americans had commented on an online news story or blog post to express their opinion about an issue. This suggests that although the number of people writing letters to the editor has declined, people are still in dialogue with news outlets. It is simply the way they are engaging that has changed: The medium is increasingly digital.

These low numbers are not a reason to discount letters as a valuable form of engagement — because more important than how many people write letters to the editor is who reads them. Mark Chekal-Bain, district director for California Assemblymember Phil Ting, noted that legislators and their staff monitor and respond to letters to the editor from their district. That makes letters a low-risk way of garnering a specific policymaker's attention and demonstrating community interest in a public health or social justice issue.

Another reason to consider writing letters to the editor is that they can be simple to execute. When you know your issue inside and out, writing a letter doesn't demand a big time commitment.

Additionally, letters can be a nimble way to join a conversation that is unfolding in media outlets and add your perspective on the issue while the topic is still part of the news cycle — or even introduce a whole different aspect of the issue that's missing from the article. Your letter can take advantage of the legitimacy and credibility news outlets afford to the issues they choose to publish.

Take, for example, this letter from Cheryl Erwin, published in the San Francisco Chronicle, which piggybacks off a story that the newspaper published about foster youth. She took the opportunity to expand the frame to include childhood trauma, writing, "By definition, children in foster care have experienced trauma: domestic violence, substance abuse, and neglect, culminating in their removal from their parents and families." In this way, a letter can be used to present a new angle that policymakers may not have been considering.

Another example of a letter to the editor that shifts the conversation comes from BMSG's director, Lori Dorfman. In a 2016 letter to The New York Times, she stressed that when shaping policy, advocates and researchers should be careful not to focus on a single variable and should instead pull back the lens and examine all of the various intertwined social determinants of health. Underlying all of our work at BMSG is the notion that to change the public's health, we need to focus on strategies that improve social conditions. Through the platform afforded by The New York Times, this letter may have reached both advocates in the field and decision-makers who have the power to change policies.

With letters to the editor, as with other forms of media advocacy, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Not all media outlets are equal for your purposes; your choice of where to submit your letter should be a strategic one. When choosing which article to respond to, consider the media outlet and its audience. For example, a letter submitted to a local news outlet can be an effective way of capturing the attention of local officials or lawmakers, who often pay close attention to these media. For advocates trying to shift policy, remember that you don't necessarily need a large audience to effect change — a major newspaper with a huge circulation may not be the right place for your letter — what matters is getting your message in front of the right people.

In this example from the Santa Fe New Mexican, Amparo Elisa Guerrero-Acevedo wrote in the lead-up to the city's soda tax vote and used the platform to talk about putting pre-kindergarten education for Santa Fe children above the beverage industry's financial interests. This powerful message was more likely to reach her target audience through a local news outlet.

If you've decided to write your own letter to the editor, here are a few tips to help you get started.

Newspapers, magazines and online media provide this free platform for people to speak out, and if it can help advocates garner support for their issue or shift the debate, why not make use of it? It can shape the dialogue around a public health or social justice issue, and if written compellingly and placed strategically, the letter could reach decision-makers and play a small but important part in bringing about policy change. After your letter has been published, share it widely with your allies and directly with your key target, via email and social media.

Do you think letters to the editor are an effective way of making your voice heard? Have other tips for writing letters or examples of your own? We want to hear from you! Share your ideas with us at info@bmsg.org, @BMSG or on Facebook.


social math (1) suicide prevention (2) gun control (2) sexual assault (1) front groups (1) filibuster (1) healthy eating (1) sugar-sweetened beverages (2) apha (3) default frame (1) george lakoff (1) childhood lead poisoning (1) new year's resolutions (1) youth (1) media advocacy (23) Richmond (5) Berkeley (2) cervical cancer (1) Measure O (1) racism (1) cosmetics (1) soda tax (11) Proposition 29 (1) Donald Trump (2) water (1) Bloomberg (3) Citizens United (1) Newtown (1) Whiteclay (4) Pine Ridge reservation (1) communication (2) cigarette advertising (1) nonprofit communications (1) education (1) environmental health (1) inequities (1) paper tigers (1) structural racism (1) HPV vaccine (1) california (1) health equity (10) gatorade bolt game (1) McDonald's (1) sexism (2) democracy (1) marketing (1) Big Food (2) collaboration (1) Food Marketing Workgroup (1) food swamps (1) world water day (1) gender (1) Happy Meals (1) gun violence (1) community (1) summer camps (1) election 2016 (1) personal responsibility (3) child sexual abuse (5) sexual health (1) junk food (2) Aurora (1) soda industry (4) genital warts (1) breastfeeding (3) industry appeals to choice (1) junk food marketing to kids (2) Joe Paterno (1) weight of the nation (1) news (2) beverage industry (2) food and beverage marketing (3) journalism (1) Amanda Fallin (1) privilege (1) ACEs (2) Tea Party (1) Bill Cosby (1) public health policy (2) Black Lives Matter (1) prison phone calls (1) FCC (1) abortion (1) tobacco (5) violence prevention (8) Big Tobacco (3) food deserts (1) news coverage (1) reproductive justice (1) snap (1) liana winett (1) advocacy (3) soda warning labels (1) media (7) authentic voices (1) soda (12) corporate social responsibility (1) government intrusion (1) SB 402 (1) social change (1) junk food marketing (4) safety (1) Sam Kass (1) cancer prevention (1) sugary drinks (10) Golden Gate Bridge (2) diabetes (1) equity (3) physical activity (1) SB-5 (1) Penn State (3) diabetes prevention (1) community safety (1) food marketing (4) food justice (1) Colorado (1) suicide nets (1) community violence (1) Sandy Hook (2) seat belt laws (1) framing (14) cap the tap (1) Catholic church (1) Twitter (1) social justice (2) public health data (1) women's health (2) chronic disease (2) vaccines (1) news strategy (1) elephant triggers (1) cannes lions festival (1) language (6) Proposition 47 (1) naacp (1) media analysis (6) adverse childhood experiences (3) nanny state (2) tobacco industry (2) strategic communication (1) Johnson & Johnson (1) children's health (3) tobacco tax (1) Telluride (1) childhood adversity (1) childhood obesity (1) El Monte (3) PepsiCo (1) food access (1) communication strategy (1) prevention (1) sports drinks (1) target marketing (8) Twitter for advocacy (1) indoor smoking ban (1) online marketing (1) messaging (3) regulation (2) childhood trauma (3) SB 1000 (1) prison system (1) product safety (1) American Beverage Association (1) Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes (1) health care (1) Let's Move (1) Dora the Explorer (1) auto safety (1) food industry (4) soda taxes (2) Texas (1) tobacco control (2) media bites (1) autism (1) cancer research (1) Rachel Grana (1) news analysis (3) ssb (1) Merck (1) Marion Nestle (1) Big Soda (2) campaign finance (1) stigma (1) community organizing (1) Oakland Unified School District (1) paula deen (1) personal responsibility rhetoric (1) sexual violence (2) beauty products (1) food (1) Nickelodeon (1) SSBs (1) community health (1) social media (2) sandusky (2) built environment (2) Gardasil (1) alcohol (5) measure N (2) public health (70) political correctness (1) institutional accountability (1) values (1) San Francisco (3) white house (1) water security (1) mental health (2) Chile (1) Michelle Obama (1) Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (1) Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (2) Jerry Sandusky (3) Coca-Cola (3) emergency contraception (1) childhood obestiy conference (1) Connecticut shooting (1) race (1) food environment (1) violence (2) suicide barrier (2) obesity prevention (1) Oglala Sioux (3) sanitation (1) choice (1) news monitoring (1) obesity (10) Wendy Davis (1) digital marketing (2)
  • Follow Us On Facebook
  • Follow Us On Twitter
  • Join Us On Youtube
  • BMSG RSS Feed

get e-alerts in your inbox: