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

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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 An effective way of joining the conversation and getting your issue into the news, or an outdated practice that belongs to a time when news was consumed differently?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.

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