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Of plagiarism, personal attacks & lack of civility

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POSTED December 23, 2009 2:30 a.m.
Enough is enough.

Over the past months the letters column on this page has managed to lower not only the civility of social and political discourse but have seen complete segments of other opinion writings lifted without attribution.

First, plagiarism.

We do not tolerate it from our reporters nor should we tolerate it from those who send in letters. Having said that, monitoring our staff writing is one thing, trying to check every letter is another.

Starting today letters on non-local political issues will not be run until at least several paragraphs can be checked. It can be a time consuming process beyond normal letter editing. This means you will not see most letters submitted on national politics for at least several days.

Does that mean a writer can’t cite articles or other opinion pieces? No it doesn’t. But they need to be referenced and they shouldn’t consist of a large chunk – or the entirety – of a letter.

Plagiarism is inexcusable but it is no better than people trying to submit letters using aliases. As ironic as it may sound, at one point one reader addressing the plagiarism issue sent in two different letters on the same subject that originated from the same address. Each one had a different name that he wanted run with it. We ran neither letter because the person wanted to use an alias. When contacted his reply was essentially plagiarism is a serious offense while misleading people about who he was is perfectly fine. There is no difference. Both are acts of intentionally misleading people no matter how noble the writer’s objectives may seem to them and their supporters.

It is always the Bulletin’s decision on whether a letter gets printed. At the same time we have been liberal with the word limit allowing people to go over that limit to get their point across especially when responding to a local issue.

Our letter policy that appears on this page states that they “ideally should not exceed 250 words.” It is a guideline we have let people exceed. It was done on the principle that people were crafting their own thoughts so if we ran the letter it would do an injustice by editing letters that exceed that by a couple hundred words as it could alter the tone of that person’s voice. It is still a limit that you will see broken but it will be reserved for issues of a local nature that have some thought put into them. Although I do not always agree with her – or her with me – Karen Pearsall is able to write longer without padding or being offensive.

That brings up the second point of civility.

There is a fine line between sarcasm and wit. Writers who chose to repeatedly toss personal insults will see their letters vetted to remove personal insults. You can disagree with people without slamming the individual.  

Again, we allowed letters to go using such sarcasm in the belief that we were trying not to alter their voice. We were wrong. In the case of demeaning characterizations silence is golden.

People should cool the attitude on the Bulletin blogs and comment sections too but it is doubtful that will happen. Every instance of vicious attacks comes from someone using an alias screen name and is often targeted at people who have the courage to use their own names.

Our paginator Ryan Balbuena astutely pointed out that the internet has allowed people to hide behind anonymity and to spread their thoughts – no matter how vicious or tasteless – around the globe and in doing so has severely ratcheted the quality of public debate downward.

The frequency of letter writers will also be addressed.

A letter-a-week limit will be strictly enforced.

We want to encourage public debate and believe the best place to do that on the community level are the pages of the Manteca Bulletin.  A vibrant community has an open exchange of ideas. It needs to be done, though, with civility and in the writer’s own voice.

And at the end of the day it is our call what appears on the pages of the Manteca Bulletin.
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