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Posted at 3:17 PM ET, 01/18/2011

Male writers dominate among Post letters to the editor

By Andy Alexander

Male voices dominate among letters to the editor in The Post. On almost any day, you’ll find many more letters from men than women.

During the month of December, for example, The Post published roughly 200 letters from men, according to research by my assistant, Jean Hwang. That was nearly three times more than from women.

The disparity in December was similar for longer, reader-submitted “Local Opinions” letters that appear on The Post’s Editorial Page.

“The explanation for the numbers is that we receive more letters from men than women,” said Letters and Local Opinions Editor Michael Larabee, who oversees the selection process. “Why men write more than women, I don’t know.”

Larabee and Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said they are aware of the imbalance.

“I encourage people who are picking letters to be aware of the desirability of having diversity,” said Hiatt. “If fewer women are writing letters, be on the lookout for good letters from women.”

But, he said, “I don’t think we should have a quota” to achieve gender parity. Rather, he said, “if there are two equally good letters on the same topic and you have five men on the page and one woman, then take the woman.”

Larabee agreed. “I think it would be wrong to insist that it be 50-50,” he said, “because that wouldn’t reflect the ratio” of letters being submitted.

But he said he takes care to ensure that the views of women writers are properly represented when more women than men write about a particular topic.

Larabee said that when he reads a letter to the editor submission, he typically is more focused on the content than the writer. “I’ve normally got a pretty good idea of whether I’m going to select a letter before I look at who the writer is,” he said.

The volume of letters to the editor is huge. In a column about a year ago, I wrote: “The Post receives an average of 300 letters to the editor a day, or more than 109,000 a year. Only about 3,900 are selected for publication; roughly 75 a week.” Larabee said that the numbers remain about the same.

The gender imbalance on the opinion pages is not new. My predecessor, Deborah Howell, touched on it in a 2008 column about the need for gender, race and ideological diversity on The Post’s op-ed page. “The nation’s power structure, often represented in Post op-eds, is white, male and at least middle-aged,” she wrote. “But a 21st-century op-ed page needs more diversity.”

In the column, she said her analysis of 654 Post op-ed pieces appearing during the first half of 2008 showed that 575 were written by men and 79 by women. But she also noted that by a margin of about 9 to 1, men submitted more op-eds than women.

Appealing to women readers remains a high priority for The Post. Like many newspapers, it has experienced dwindling female readership. A 2008 internal report prepared for Post managers by a Female Readership Committee, consisting of about a dozen staffers, said, “the drop in female readership was noted in 1996 and began accelerating in 2003.” While the report focused mainly on content in The Post’s news and features sections, it spoke of the importance of creating “an expectation among female readers that the paper is being published with them in mind.” That’s sure important on the opinion pages as well.

By Andy Alexander  | January 18, 2011; 3:17 PM ET
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I will make you a bet that there is economic discrimination at work here, too. A majority of those who write letters strike me as coming from the white, educated elite, reflecting the WPO readership. So where are the opposing voices? I know the WPO is going to say it doesn't discriminate on economic or racial grounds, but I know the editors sample letter-writers before running their letters, and so could very easily discern the economic or social standing and ethnicity of letter writers if they wanted to. This is more than a silly point because I contend the WPO letter columns do not reflect the views of the community on issues ranging from school reform to persistent unemployment.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | January 19, 2011 1:24 PM | Report abuse

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