Many citizens seek to enact a form of public sphere by writing letters to the editor to local newspapers. The letters columns constitute local mediated public spheres in which writers and readers assemble a public through semi-deliberative practices. Using a unique dataset of all letters received by one metropolitan newspaper and a survey of letter writers and nonwriting subscribers, the paper analyzes the argumentative style of letters and the demographic characteristics of writers. Writers are more likely to be white, male, older, more politically active, and more liberal than the local population. Hypotheses tested about letter- writing among newspaper readers confirm that social inequalities and political engagement influence participation in this public sphere. Hypotheses about argumentative tone in letters confirm key effects of gender differences and sense of local political efficacy.
Andrew Perrin is a cultural and political sociologist. He received his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 2001. His research focuses, among other areas, on citizenship and democratic behavior in the United States: what do people need to know, be, and do to make democracy work? His current research is on public opinion and letters to the editor, and he is working on a book on the sociology of democracy. He is associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a regular contributor to Scatterplot, the sociology blog.