You're looking at the most read section of the paper right now. No, not my column - the letters to the editor.

Frankly, I've been skimming them of late: I'm exasperated by a couple of chronic correspondents using the letters forum to argue against evolution and abortion and evangelise their version of Christianity.

I'm glad others have the patience to point out the holes in their arguments, but it's turned into a ping-pong match. I suspect I stand with a large majority of New Zealanders who consider religion a private matter and find it rather embarrassing and awkward when someone tries to push it on them.

Read more: Rachel Rose: Gardens bring a message of local hope
Rachel Rose: One of the best documentaries I've seen

Advertisement

I also cringe at some of the ugly racist rants that get published in the letters section.

It's an offence under Section 61 of the Human Rights Act to publish material which is 'threatening, abusive or insulting,' and 'likely to excite hostility' against a group of people or bring them into contempt on the ground of their colour, race or ethnicity.

This sets the bar pretty high: it's not enough that the material is offensive, it has to have the potential to rouse hostility. Our right to freedom from discrimination must be balanced against our right to freedom of expression, enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

(Frankly, I thought some of the letters and ads published by Ian Brougham in the last council election campaign reached that bar, but that was never tested; no complaints were made to the Human Rights Commission.)

Chronicle editor Mark Dawson holds to the better-out-than-in view: people with extreme views are part of the community and such ideas are better out in the open where they can be debated. I have a certain sympathy for this position.

But circulating hate-filled opinions is also likely to normalise them and embolden others to agree with them. The rise of the extreme-right in the USA is a distressing case in point.

Online forums and websites have provided a home for fringe ideas where isolated people can find others who share their views, or encourage them. Added to that, there's been a tolerance and even encouragement of racism at the highest levels of politics since Trump took office.

I do wonder why the Chron chooses to print racist rants from people who live elsewhere in the country, who don't disclose any connection to Whanganui and who are not commenting on something specific to Whanganui. I suspect an orchestrated campaign by an embittered few and they have the nous to target smaller papers where their chances of being published are much higher.

Advertisement

If you've ever wondered how letters to the editor get selected, it goes like this.

First, the handwritten letters are entered into the computer system. Letters are initially screened against the paper's legal responsibilities: libel or hate speech is out. Most are then edited, sometimes for clarity or for length but also for content. Mark says a lot are toned down: "people can be criticised, but we don't publish personal abuse."

Lastly, like the rest of the copy in the paper, the letters are "subbed" (sub-edited), meaning spelling and punctuation is fixed up, as needed.

At the Chronicle, the letters section is delegated to a staff member, but it's still the editor who gets an earful from people protesting about their letters not being published. Both sides of the ping-pong matches always want the last word.

I reckon he needs to resort more to that august statement I remember from the Evening Post of my childhood: "This correspondence is now closed - Ed."

Like election campaign meetings and other traditional forms of civic engagement, I expect newspaper letter writers are much older than average. It has a long history but risks becoming a lost art.

Larger papers now devote a considerable part of their letters section to very short comments submitted online. I think millenials are expressing their views on current issues on social media rather than writing letters to the paper: but that just adds to the echo chamber effect because they are talking to a chosen circle of friends who very likely agree with them.

However, there is sometimes robust discussion on the Chronicle's Facebook page, as people pile in to comment on individual stories. Perhaps the Chron could consider mining its own Facebook feed for readers' comments for the print edition.

It turns out our letters section is the envy of many other editors of regional newspapers, who may only receive a letter or two a week. Here the supply is steady, but Mark estimates 80 to 90 per cent of them do get published.

So if, like me, you'd enjoy a better standard of letters to the editor, get busy writing some. I understand articulate, well-reasoned letters would be very well-received. And some wit? Well that would be marvellous.

*More information and sources can be found at www.facebook.com/rachelrose.writer