Opinion

The rules of the game: Writing for The Beachcomber

Lasting impressions

A lot of people write for The Beachcomber. They submit columns, letters to the editor, articles for our community page. Their voices are varied and genuine, and we welcome —even encourage — their contributions.

But it’s also tricky having a variety of people write for the paper, because they don’t always know the rules of the craft or the principles that guide our thinking.

In some cases, writers make innocent mistakes — crossing a line they didn’t even know existed.

Other times, I’ve felt a letter-writer was attempting to use the paper to win an argument with a neighbor or take a jab at someone he or she didn’t like. In those instances, I’ve sent the letter back, asking the writer to rework it and make it less pointed and personal.

One situation came up recently that was particularly tricky, because it arose after the fact. A reader e-mailed us to say that a couple lines from a column that Tressa Azpiri had written about her childhood on Vashon were nearly identical to a line in a children’s book. The column, a re-run of a piece The Beachcomber published a few years ago, ran most recently on July 9, 2008.

Azpiri had written: “The years went by and the seasons changed. We all grew tall, and one by one most moved away to other houses, other towns.”

The children’s book, “Roxaboxen” by Alice McLerran, reads: “The years went by, and the seasons changed, until at last the friends had all grown tall, and one by one, they moved away to other houses, other towns.”

When I asked Azpiri about this, she said she knew the book well and loved it. She used to run a preschool on the Island. The similarity, she said, likely resulted from some unconscious memory of the book, not an intentional act of plagiarism.

“I have to wonder if some memory of the story ‘triggered’ that line for me as I reflected on describing how it feels to be grown together through childhood, launched into adulthood and then the coming together again,” she said in an e-mail from Jamaica, where she now lives.

We know Azpiri here at The Beachcomber and think she’s a wonderful person. And it seems possible that’s exactly what happened. But it troubled this reader, and that’s understandable, too, as plagiarism is a serious matter.

Thus, it felt important that the paper acknowledge the similarity — and use this opportunity to review with our readers, especially those who might write for us on occasion, the rules of the game.

Here are a few.

Plagiarism, in this electronic age when so much is at our fingertips, is remarkably easy and tempting — and as a result it’s become an increasingly serious issue in journalism circles. Professional writers can get fired for it. Nonprofessional writers won’t get fired, of course, but they, too, need to adhere to this strict, carved-in-stone rule.

And it extends beyond books such as McLerran’s “Roxaboxen.”

According to some universities and colleges, where concern about plagiarism runs deep, unattributed information can be taken from sources that are considered within “the public domain” — from newspapers to dictionaries to Wikipedia. But whole sentences cannot be lifted verbatim from any source, public domain or not, except with attribution.

The Beachcomber is also concerned about community members using the newspaper to attack another member of the community or the tone they use when taking issue with another person’s opinions or actions.

The issue is gray if the person is an elected official. In that case, it’s not off-limits to criticize them by name, although The Beachcomber will reject letters or columns if those criticisms are worded in a petty or mean-spirited way.

If the person is not an elected official, but, say, someone who has written a letter to The Beachcomber, we ask that those who write letters in response take issue with the person’s ideas or words, not his or her character or personality.

Here’s the distinction: One can say, “I disagreed with John Smith when he said dogs should be allowed to run free on Vashon.” One cannot say, “John Smith is an idiot to suggest dogs should be allowed to run free on Vashon.”

Finally, we of course need to ensure we’re steering clear of libel — the malicious or negligent printing of factually incorrect information that defames a person’s character. There’s a huge amount of case law on this topic — as courts have recognized that libel (or the threat of a libel suit) can have a chilling effect on a newspaper and undermine the First Amendment. On the other hand, someone’s life can be ruined if a news organization prints information about that person that is factually untrue.

At The Beachcomber, we know enough about libel that we can usually recognize something that is potentially libelous when we see it. And when the situation is really tricky, we call our lawyer. It’s rare that a letter-writer strays into the world of libel, but we do, of course, watch out for it.

The bottom line is that we want to encourage our readers to see The Beachcomber as a forum for ideas and debate, and we want people to submit letters and columns, even provocative ones.

At the same time, we want people to know and adhere to the rules of the game, so as to ensure that The Beachcomber remains fair, honest, transparent and factually solid.

— Leslie Brown is the editor of

The Beachcomber.

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