The Berkshire Eagle is a relatively small newspaper that is published out of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Like many such publications, it hosts a “Letters to the Editor” section where readers can submit their own opinion pieces to the paper.
However, a letter that was published earlier today by Paul D. Nugent is definitely unusual for both the paper, and newspapers in general.
In the letter, Nugent referred to a letter published on February 2nd by fellow reader Thomas Gilardi. Though Nugent said that he agreed with a criticism of the letter, that was “beside the point” as Gilardi’s letter was “lifted word-from-word” from a January 11th letter to the editor in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Upon examination, The Berkshire Eagle realized the plagiarism and published Nugent’s letter. However, with it, they published two separate Editor’s notes that explained “The Eagle is strongly opposed to plagiarism and does not allow authors to pass off others’ writing as their own in letters to the editor or any section of the paper.”
They said that, while they previously did not spell this out for letters to the editor, they felt it should have been obvious. Further, they claimed to routinely check for plagiarism in letters to the editor, but that, “The plagiarized letter included minor alterations to the original text, which complicated our usual plagiarism screening.”
The Berkshire Eagle has since removed the plagiarized letter, an unusual move that is not standard at many publications. However, The Internet Archive had grabbed it shortly after publication. A quick comparison of the two works shows that Gilardi lifted 172 of 252 words. 52 of those words were his final sentence, which was added on, leaning just 28 original words in the body of his piece.
This raises questions as to exactly what plagiarism detection practices The Eagle follows. While the nature of the copying may have foiled a simple Google Search, any reasonably competent plagiarism check would have detected it. CopyScape, for example, was able to find it immediately and the check only cost me four cents.
The truth is that The Eagle almost certainly doesn’t have a stout process for checking letters to the editor. However, they are far from alone in that as many publications make it a habit of routinely publishing the words of others with little more than blind trust.
That is a practice that desperately needs to stop.
A Blind Trust
At most publications, letters to the editor are treated very differently from articles submitted by either their reporters or wire services. Simply put, they aren’t held to the same standards and that includes nearly every element of them, from the formatting to the content.
As a result, even publications that do well when checking for ethical missteps, including detecting plagiarism and fact-checking information, have a blind spot when it comes to their public comment section.
Much of that is understandable. Members of the public can’t be expected to write to AP Style or meet other obscure requirements that reporters do. However, there are issues, such as not committing plagiarism, that one should reasonably expect of anyone publishing in the paper, whether they are a trained journalist or not.
As such, it makes sense to, at the very least, apply the same rigors and checks that regular journalists have to go through for those serious infractions. However, in truth, the checks should probably be even more mistrusting.
Publications often dismiss this, saying that letters to the editor are not reflective of their editorial practices and, as such, not their responsibility. Yet, as The Eagle points out, this can end up with the publication being complicit in the act of plagiarism.
The truth is, The Eagle could have and should have done better in this case. However, there’s not much that separates The Eagle from countless other newspapers across the world.
That is, other than the fact its plagiarist was caught.
Like many stories we talk about here, this is a cautionary tale. Not just to The Eagle, but to other publications.
Letters to the Editor can’t be held to the same standards as regular reporters but still need to be checked for serious issues, including plagiarism.
While it’s true that such plagiarism isn’t as harmful as plagiarism by a direct reporter, it still puts the paper in a position where it is complicit in the publication of plagiarized works. That does nothing for either their reputation or public trust in them.
There are tools and approaches that can fairly easily address this issue. All that is required is for publications to put them to good use.