Writing a letter to the editor of your community’s newspaper is an easy and effective way to raise local awareness and convince new people to join the movement. Whether you’re already an experienced writer or a brand-new activist just finding your voice, you can write an impactful letter to the editor by following these simple steps:
1. Consider your goal and audience
Letters to the editor are usually intended to ask a newspaper to cover an issue they’ve previously not covered, to respond to something they’ve already covered, or to ask an elected official to take a stance on an issue. You’ll have a higher chance of getting published if you directly address someone in a position of power, whether they’re a journalist at that paper or a public figure. For example, if your elected representative has previously supported or stood against sustainable fishing regulations, you can directly ask them to speak out against drift gillnets. Even if the politician doesn’t respond, your letter will still catch the eye of readers who voted for or against that politician. Likewise, if there’s a journalist in the paper who regularly covers environmental issues, or a food critic who recently reviewed a seafood restaurant, you may want to target them with your letter.
No matter who you directly address, the reader is still your main audience. Think about who is most likely to read your chosen newspaper. A college paper is a good place to reach young activists who are likely to follow campaigns through social media and be part of an activist group campus. A small town newspaper might reach local families who would be interested in speaking to local grocery stores about carrying sustainably caught swordfish. A city newspaper will have a wide and diverse audience who may frequent our targeted seafood restaurants. Consider what aspect of the campaign most strongly impacts your chosen audience, and make sure to emphasize it throughout your letter. While parts of our campaign also focus on international fisheries, it’s also most effective in this case to address the local issues, like your town’s restaurants and California’s fisheries.
2. Stay on the short side
Check your newspaper in advance to see the average length of their published letters to the editor. Different publications will have different preferred lengths, but in general, around 300-350 words is safe. Obviously, 300 words is not enough space to thoroughly cover every single aspect of our campaign, and that’s okay. A letter to the editor isn’t meant to be an essay or opinion piece—think of it as a persuasive introduction. If you can effectively give readers a reason to care, they’ll seek out the rest of the information themselves. Choose one or two facts that you find especially shocking. Honing in on a small amount of facts will let you share specific statistics and give your letter a tight focus.
Not sure which facts to include? Here are some suggestions:
- 885 marine mammals were killed in California’s drift gillnets during the last decade.
- The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List states that endangered and vulnerable species like shortfin mako sharks and leatherback sea turtles are frequently killed in swordfish fisheries.
- Swordfish, the target species, make up only 12% of the drift gillnet catch. 65% of the total catch is discarded overboard.
- 21% of the catch consisted of IUCN Red List Species between 2004 and 2014.
3. Find your connection
Just as it’s crucial to make readers understand why this issue is important, it’s also crucial to make readers understand why they should listen to you. Think back to step one and consider your audience again. If you’re a college student writing to your school paper, what makes you especially connected to this issue. Are you a marine biology major? A journalism minor? President of the Sustainability Club? Have you participated in other on-campus activism? All your experience and knowledge gives your opinion more weight. If you’re writing to that small town paper about grocery stores, can you mention the swordfish sold at your local Albertsons? Have you personally talked with the grocery store manager about the boycott? Are you in a large city and boycotting a popular seafood joint downtown? Did you love that restaurant before you learned the truth about where their swordfish comes from? You’re a concerned customer helping others to make an informed choice. It’s all about knowing where you fit into the campaign within your community.
4. End with a call to action
Once you’ve told people the most impactful facts and given them a reason to trust your opinion, it’s time to persuade your readers to get involved! Like always, keep it short and focused—a solid ending formula is to provide one specific suggestion, like contacting restaurants and grocery stores on our boycott list through social media, along with a general suggestion to learn more about the campaign at TIRN’s website. If you previously mentioned an elected official or journalist, you’ll also want to tie your letter together by addressing them again and making sure you’ve asked them to cover the campaign in the paper or to voice support for regulations that will protect California’s sealife from drift gillnets and longlines.
Having trouble organizing your letter? A basic letter structure should look like this:
- Address the paper/journalist/representative/etc.
- Explain why this issue is important by citing one or two specific facts.
- Mention your connection to the issue within the community.
- Call the public (and previously mentioned journalists or representatives) to action and give two suggestions for getting involved.
Here is a sample letter. While this can be a useful guide, don’t be afraid to get creative and make your own letter more personal.
I am disappointed to see that you have not yet covered Turtle Island Restoration Network’s Swordfish Boycott in Southern California, and even more disappointed to see that representative Julia Brownley has not spoken out in support of regulations banning drift gillnets from California’s drift gillnet fishery. The bycatch rate, or amount of other animals accidentally caught along with the target species, of this fishery is one of the highest in the world, and as endangered and vulnerable species are being killed in these nets, urgent action is needed. In the past decade alone, 885 marine mammals have died in drift gillnets set to catch swordfish, as well as IUCN Red List species like the leatherback sea turtle and shortfin mako shark. Furthermore, this fishery is wasteful, with swordfish making up only 12% of the total catch, and up to 65% of the total catch being discarded.
As a Ventura County resident and environmental activist who frequently visits the many local seafood restaurants in the area, I was shocked and discouraged to learn that many of these restaurants are still serving unsustainably caught swordfish caught in drift gillnets and longlines, another high bycatch gear. With eco-friendly gears like the deep-set buoy and harpoon available to fishermen, continuing to buy and sell unsustainably caught swordfish is irresponsible and unnecessary. While many California restaurants project an image of sustainability, they are often unwilling to discuss the impact of their seafood with customers, or to change their actions for the better. I hope that Representative Julia Brownley will use her voice to speak out in favor of banning drift gillnets in our state, and I hope that the public will join me in boycotting restaurants that continue to serve unsustainably caught swordfish, whether caught locally or imported. Please visit seaturtles.org to learn more about bycatch’s impact on endangered and vulnerable species in California and around the world, and then contact TIRN’s boycotted restaurants near you to voice your concern over their unsustainable choice. California’s sea turtles will thank you for it.
[Your Name Here]
Some final words of advice: be sure to include your contact information when you submit your letter so the editor can get in touch with you, and don’t get discouraged if you’re not published by the first newspaper you choose! Keep trying, keep perfecting your letters to fit your audience, and keep trying to find your voice!