Consequence unintended but confusing just the same

August 30, 2018 GMT

A fairly routine practice of mine pertaining to letters to the Daily News published on the Commentary page recently caused some confusion and consternation among some readers.

Let’s say John Smith is a member of the Norfolk school board. He decides to write a letter to the editor in which he shares information and expresses an opinion about an issue in front of the school board. He signs his letter simply “John Smith.”

It’s a pretty common practice here at the Daily News — and at many other newspapers — that when the letter is published, I would add “Norfolk school board member” after his name.

Why? Because it provides helpful and, in some cases, needed context. It’s one thing if a letter about a Norfolk school issue is written by a John Smith who just moved here from Iowa as compared to John Smith, the Norfolk school board member. Readers of said letter deserve to know who the person is expressing an opinion.

That kind of information could be added in the form of an editor’s note that would say something like: “Editor’s note: The John Smith who wrote the above letter is a member of the Norfolk school board.” But that takes up extra room and so I often, for brevity’s sake, simply add words such as “Norfolk school board member” and leave it at that.

Now, do I add that kind of information in all cases? No.

If that same John Smith wrote a letter to the Daily News about, for example, the Cornhusker football season, his status as a Norfolk school board member isn’t really pertinent.

The confusion and consternation came about in regard to information submitted by members of the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District about matters pertinent to the NRD. So, in both cases, I added the words “Lower Elkhorn NRD board member” to their names.

My doing so generated considerable discussion as to whether the individuals involved — by my identifying them as a board member — created the impression that they were speaking for the entire board.

If so, it’s a mistaken impression.

Anyone involved in serving on a board of directors or leadership position of any kind knows that individuals can’t speak for an entire board. Only the board itself can do that.

Individuals serving in those positions certainly have the right to express an opinion, but that’s all it is — not the official position of the board itself. In fact, the Lower Elkhorn has an actual policy that makes that clear to its board members.

I feel bad that by doing something I thought was obvious turned out to be not so obvious. My intention certainly wasn’t to cause discord or confusion among NRD board members or among the general public.

Readers will continue to see individuals in leadership roles have this kind of contextual information published with their letters to the editor.

But if it seems to be a particularly contentious issue, I’ll strive to go the editor’s note route as a way of making it more clear that the individuals involved aren’t speaking for their entire board.

I hope that helps.