Thanks for reading! (In defense of hate mail)

Thanks for reading! (In defense of hate mail)

A weird confession: one of my favorite things about being a reporter is the hate mail I get from readers.

The non-journalism people in my life think this is weird, but other reporters seem to understand.

It’s a combination of things, I think -- part defense mechanism, part relief that someone reads what we write and a lot of unintentional hilarity. Most hate mail seethes with satisfaction; you can almost hear the writer thinking, “This’ll show her!”

Basically, there’s a lot of joy to be gleaned from hate mail.

There are exceptions, of course.

Some messages are just rude (Carly Hildyard, a reporter at FOX8, said she once got a letter from a man sending “condolences about my facial deformities”). Some are weird (Caleigh Cross, a reporter with the Stowe Reporter, heard from a woman who said a story “made her never want to put in another set of hearing aids”). And yes, some are just awful, full stop (Greg Jonsson, breaking news editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, once got an anonymous “get well” card imploring the paper to “give us whites one Sunday without a black on the front page”).

But most of the time, hate mail is harmless, and funny even though it’s trying desperately not to be.

There is some risk to writing this publicly, as I imagine the senders of hate mail would not be psyched to learn how much glee they bring us. But I’m doing it anyway, because the following examples are too good not to share. (Senders’ names have been redacted, but grammar and spelling mistakes have not.)

From other reporters

The following email came to a reporter in Albuquerque from a viewer who was “evidently mad I mentioned 104 degree temps were ‘too hot’ back in June.” (The reporter has requested anonymity, for reasons that will soon become obvious.)

“Hey if its to hot why don't you move t Michogan ,Wisconsin or Minnesota!” he wrote. “You really think your a top ten newscaster. You don't smile, your flabby and have the personality of a brick.”

Lydia Coutré, who covers health care and nonprofits for Crains Cleveland, received a lengthy email after writing an article about the decline in teen tobacco usage as e-cigarettes gained popularity.

The reader called Lydia a “lying, fact-less, amature (at best) journalist” and later accused her of shilling for big tobacco, saying “I want you to realize that by trying to get these e-cigarettes banned, YOU, LYDIA COUTRE, are contributing to the deaths of millions of youth.” He closed by encouraging her to “actually GET THE FACTS before you try to denounce something you know nothing about. Or heard your girlfriends chatting about at the water cooler.”

(Her newsroom at the time, Lydia notes, did not even have a water cooler.)

Madison Hogan, a reporter at the Cherokee Tribune in Canton, Ga., received the following handwritten letter enclosed with a copy of an article in which she’d made an editing mistake.

“We don’t expect you to have a master’s degree in journalism working at a small-town paper, but an eighth-grade compatancy would be helpful!”

(The letter did not include a return address or phone number, Madison says, making it impossible to “return the favor.”)

My colleague John Newsom received a voicemail diatribe from a woman who was scandalized by the photo our editors chose to accompany a story about SimMom, a “high-tech mannequin” designed to help nursing students prepare for labor and delivery.

“Surely the paper did not have that mannequin on the front page for children in all the world to see,” ranted the woman, who presumably called John after seeing the mannequin on the front page. “That is absolutely the most immoral-looking thing I have ever seen. Spread your legs, women, spread your legs. That is what y’all are putting on the front page? It is disgusting, absolutely disgusting. Shame on you people. Can’t you do better?”

From my personal files

This spring I surveyed elected officials in North Carolina to see how they felt about Beyoncé , then wrote a blog about the results (the people needed to know, y’all). My managing editor thought it was funny, so he ran it on the front page with a full-page graphic.

And people just hated it. And they really, really wanted me to know.

“I think that article on Beyoncé is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read in my entire life,” one woman said in a voicemail. “That I am paying for a front page full of, excuse me, bullshit … I hope and pray to God that you never write another thing.”

“This is hardly front page news worthy,” another reader said via email. “I’m embarrassed for you and our city. Loyal subscriber!!!!”

A final thought: I can’t speak for other journalists, but I always reply to my hate mail.

I appreciate anyone who still reads a newspaper, and it’s important to know if I’m succeeding at informing those people. There’s always common ground, and I think that dialogue is especially crucial now that the sitting president actively encourages people to hate and distrust the media.

Here’s an example, beginning with a message I received from a reader earlier this year.

“You people ARE the enemy of the (sane) people. Looking forward to the day this left-wing fish wrapper disappears for good! But with your UNAMERICAN attitude you should have no trouble finding another slot in the left wing media!”

In my reply, I closed with this:

“Finally, I'm not anyone's enemy. I'm a human person, the same as you, doing my best at my job every day. I'm sorry to hear that you hope that the company that employs me and pays my salary goes out of business, but am heartened that you believe I'd be able to find another job.”

We correspond semi-regularly now and, I think, understand each other better. In a time when the divide between reporters and readers can feel particularly wide, this feels like something to celebrate.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a government reporter in Greensboro, N.C. She is sorry that you hate her writing and thanks you for reading.

Photo via Pixabay

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