An AOPA Guide: Writing a Letter to the Editor

An AOPA Guide

Writing a Letter to the Editor

Why write a letter to the editor?

Because most people perceive general aviation mainly through media coverage, errors or bias in the media create problems for all of us in aviation.

Prejudices and misconceptions about general aviation among non-fliers are reinforced by uninformed reporting and editorializing in the news media.

Aviation officials and even pilots themselves are not blameless. Dazzled by media limelight focused on accidents, they occasionally leapfrog their own good judgment to offer "instant analysis," speculation, and self-serving opinions. Even a careful reporter can be led astray by ill-advised comments from experts - real or self-styled.

Resulting news reports misinform the public and can damn "small airplanes" in the minds of readers, listeners and viewers.

Continual reinforcement of negative stereotypes puts the aviation community at a disadvantage when our airports come under attack. Earnest but narrowly focused environmentalists, neighborhood leaders, and commercial property developers can base anti-aviation arguments on widespread misconceptions that serve their ends.

Old boxing coaches say fighters have only three courses of action: beat your opponent to the punch, counter-punch, or get battered to a pulp. The letter to the editor is the counter-punch.

As in countering a rumor, you can rarely hope to communicate with all those who heard the first version. But a published letter to the editor will get you into the same arena, with largely the same audience. Even though it appears a week later and on a different page, your letter will reach a good number of opinion leaders who read newspaper op-ed pages.

Like any good counter-punch, your letter must come as soon as possible after the first blow. It must strike directly at the vital point. It must be delivered with force, but with cool calculation. Anger is self-defeating.

If the error or bias you want to correct concerns a local issue, you're in the best position to set it right. Most newspapers, especially local dailies and weeklies, pride themselves on community-based news coverage. They also feel a civic duty to provide a public forum. Hence, local-origin letters often get into print while one from a national headquarters may not.

Your letter to the editor can be an important factor in gaining public support for general aviation.

The guidelines

An effective letter to the editor is based on six essential qualities:

Brevity Relevance Clarity
Fairness Honesty Timeliness

Keep it short....

There's too much news and too little space. Whether it's The New York Times or a local weekly, editors must pack maximum information into every column inch. The five-paragraph letter stands a far better chance of publication than a more thorough analysis that runs two or more pages.

Get to the point....

The first sentence should state your topic flat out. Use an introductory phrase only to identify an item previously carried in that publication. Examples:

"About Don Hopkins' letter ( The Phoenix Gazette April 24) regarding taxes and Scottsdale Airport: The users of the airport, not the general taxpayer, directly support...."

" The Ledger's editorial ('Let's Keep It Quiet,' June 18) opposing the crosswind runway needed at Municipal Airport is shortsighted...."

Strong words grab attention....

Short, gutsy, wakeup words get the reader's attention. But beware of sounding belligerent or resentful. It's easy to get carried away in the effort to make a strong case.

Stick to the facts...and make sure they are facts....

Vague statements of principle rarely gain support. Anecdotes persuade, facts convince. Both must be true. If you can't be sure, check it out. If you can't check it out, or credit it to an acceptable source (" The Wall Street Journal reported May 23 that..."), don't use it.

Don't overwrite....

Avoid exaggerations, aviator jargon, and elegant but uncommon speech. Get a friend or family member to read over your letter to make sure it doesn't "talk down" to the general reader.

Don't amble, ramble or preamble....

Interesting though some background information and hangar stories may be, they can kill a letter's chance of publication. Stick to the main point with tersely argued supporting evidence.

Suggest alternatives....

Condemning and complaining serve no purpose unless you offer solutions. Propose alternatives, suggest a better way, or open a door to mutually beneficial compromise. Your letter will be more effective.

Timing is vital....

ASAP, of course. But take time to think through your argument and hone the language for best effect - on the editor and on the public.

Presenting the letter...and yourself....

Gone are the days when editors accepted copy with corrections scribbled between the lines. Grubby copy is rejected out of hand.

A letter to the editor should be typed (or laser-printed) on good stationery - letterhead if you have one. It should be double-spaced, with frequent paragraph breaks. Type your name and city of residence under your signature. If your job title indicates you are especially qualified to talk about the subject, use your title, too. Many editors today also will accept - and in fact, a few now prefer - e-mailed letters. Be sure to check the editor's requirements, such as inclusion of a full address and phone number.

Try for personal contact....

A phone call will often get an interview with the editor in charge of letters for publication. Hand-to-hand delivery, if possible, is always best. The editor has a chance to judge your sincerity and depth of knowledge. And you have a chance to initiate a continuing, useful relationship.

If direct contact is difficult or inappropriate, send a cover note addressing the editor in charge of letters by name and title, offering to provide more background information if necessary.

Submit to editing with humility....

Letter editing is usually just a word or two inserted or deleted for clarity, or a paragraph cut for lack of space. If an editor considers your letter worth the time it takes to edit it, accept that as a compliment. Even professional writers need editors.

Cultivate your relationship with the media....

Occasional well reasoned letters that draw reader response will establish you with the newspaper as a credible source of aviation information, but bombarding the paper with letters can be counterproductive.

Personal contact and restraint in writing will help avoid being branded a zealot.

If editors come to consider you an authoritative aviation spokesperson, reporters may consult you in the process of covering aviation events. You may even be asked to write occasional opinion pieces for the paper's op-ed page.

Special guidelines for radio and television....

A few radio and TV stations read excerpts from audience letters on the air, and occasionally the writer is asked to tape his comments for broadcast.

The principles for writing to a broadcaster are the same as those for a letter to a newspaper, but with even greater stress on brevity. Two minutes is a long time on the air, and the average speaker of English begins to sound rushed talking at more than 125 words a minute. So two minutes is equivalent to one full double-spaced typewritten page of 25 lines-250 words. No more.

If you write a letter and the station asks you to tape your comment for broadcast, make sure you can do it easily in two minutes - or whatever time the station allows. From your double-spaced script, read in a normal, conversational tone, but with your head up, as though speaking to someone on the other side of the dinner table. (Some find it easier to read ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, but do what comes easiest for you.)

By all means, read your piece aloud to yourself several times, keeping in mind that relaxation is essential to a natural tone of voice. It may help to read aloud to another person. When you broadcast (or tape), remember that you are communicating not with a mass audience, but with individuals, one by one, listening to their radios or watching their TV screens.

If the station (or network) that carried an erroneous or biased report offers no opportunity for listener comment, you can write to the local newspaper. Cite the broadcast and make your case to the paper's readership. There's a good chance you'll reach at least some of the original broadcast audience.

Facts and statistics

General aviation is all flying except military and the scheduled airlines.

In the United States in 2000, there were:

  • 637,083 certificated (licensed) pilots
  • 212,753 active civil aircraft, of which
    • 193,608 (91%) were general aviation aircraft

There were:

  • 19,282 landing facilities (airports, heliports, etc.), of which
    • 5,316 were public-use facilities; only
    • 651 (12%) were served by scheduled airlines

In the United States in 2000, there were:

  • 44,186 transportation fatalities, of which
    • 770 occurred in rail transport
    • 801 in recreational boating
    • 592 in general aviation, and
    • 41,800 (94.6%) on the nation's highways

General aviation's 2000* accident rate and fatal accident rate (per 100,000 hours flown) were the lowest in more than 50 years - 5.96 and 1.11 respectively, as computed by the National Transportation Safety Board. That's down from 77.8 and 7.0 when record keeping began in 1946.

As a result, 99.99 percent of all general aviation flights are conducted safely, with no fatalities.

*(latest complete figures)