For eight years, I worked closely with the editors who compiled the Letters column in the Opinion section. I can tell you from firsthand experience that its one of the most challenging jobs at The Star.
Part of the reason its so difficult is the sheer volume of mail received. Hundreds of letters are sent in every week. Most of them are simply not publishable in any form, regardless of their content. Many dont follow the rules that are clearly laid out in the How to Reach Us box that runs every day on the page. Regular Letters readers notice there are names who show up frequently (though once per month is the maximum). Some of those writers, who often submit very good material, write multiple times a week.
And even the best letters generally require some legwork. If they use data and dont give citations of sources, the letters editor has to independently check it out or ask the writer where it came from. Most need slight tweaks of grammar or to conform to The Stars copy style as it pertains to things such as date formats, street names and so on.
Keeping all these balls in the air is difficult. And adding in the almost total switch to the Internet for submissions has made it harder in some ways, but easier in others.
I received mail today from R.K. Russell, who pointed me to two letters published earlier this year that lifted substantial parts of their arguments, and even some specific language, from other media sources. One cribbed from a blog, and the other stole from a Wall Street Journal opinion piece earlier in the year.
Why do people lift? Sometimes its simply because they read something they agree with and want others to see it. Sometimes they dont think theyll be found out.
And you may be surprised to know many submitters dont realize theres anything wrong with doing it. Most people who send in letters arent professional writers or communicators, and the rules of the road in those fields just arent on their radar.
In fact, Ive discovered through the years that a large percentage of readers is quite confused about what does or doesnt amount to plagiarism. Its fairly black and white most of the time. Simply put, it includes the wholesale lifting of someone elses writing, research or original concepts without attribution, according to The Stars code of ethics. Check out the whole relevant section in the code if youre interested in the specifics.
The obvious upside of the Internet in ferreting out plagiarism, which is as a problem as old as publishing: Its easier than ever before to find stolen material with a simple Google search. I know the letters editor does this routinely when he finds something that sets off an alarm bell. However, its not feasible to check every letter by hand, especially because many people will insert some of their own material among the things theyve stolen. In fact, one of the examples Russell pointed out to me did just that. It had divided up sentences from a blogger, using them at different points in its own construction (if you can call it its own).
But the problematic role the Internet plays here is what an absolute breeze it is to copy in this day and age. I used to teach college courses that required essays, and I simply cant imagine how much harder that is for people teaching todays students now that copying and pasting ten pages of content from any corner of the Internet takes literally seconds. Keeping up with that is an impossibility.
The particular letters Russell identified to me were still posted on KansasCity.com, so Ive deleted them. Ive also alerted the Opinion section editors to the problems so that they can either choose never to run another submission from the writers, or at least subject any future letters from them to great scrutiny. A note will run in tomorrows paper as well with the corrections.
An additional wrinkle that Id be remiss in not pointing out: The Star, like all papers I know of, just doesnt get as many good submissions from conservatives as from those on the left. Its a sad but true fact that letters from the right are more likely to include stolen content than other letters, in my experience. I think thats because of the thriving conservative alternative media world, which uses a lot of chain emails. I receive tons of those myself, and theyre often full of good content. But lets keep it attributed to the originators, not on the Letters page.