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A signature is necessary (11/22/2006)
By Frances Edstrom

On November 15, the Star Tribune revealed in an editor's note that there was a charge of plagiarism leveled at an editorial writer at that newspaper. Star Tribune editorials are not signed, but rather explained this way: "Editorials represent the institutional voice of the Star Tribune. They are researched and written by the Editorial Department, which is independent of the newsroom." But, in fact the editorial in question was written by a single individual, whom the newspaper declined to name.

At the Winona Post, we sign our editorials because we feel strongly that people should be willing to take responsibility for their expressed beliefs. We do not print unsigned letters to the editor, guest editorials, or even columns. We do not run unsigned commentary on our website. When written material is signed, the reader has a reasonable chance of being able to assess the reliability of the writer's information, or demand that he give proof of his claims.

The proliferation of anonymous chats and blogs on the Internet, and the willingness of readers to accept and pass along information for which there is no proof, nor any basis in fact, is troubling. It should be expected, I suppose, that much unsigned commentary found on the Internet is made up of vicious personal attacks.

Plagiarism on the Internet is rampant, too, but there is no recourse for the reader, who accepts the claims of unsigned information at his own peril. Plagiarism can happen in newspapers, as well, as several high profile cases of late have shown. Winona's two newspapers have not escaped, over the years, having plagiarized material appear on their pages, either. But our local papers, and much larger newspapers such as the New York Times, when they discover plagiarized material, are quick to acknowledge to their readers what has happened, and take appropriate action with the personnel involved. Newspapers know that their readers expect them to take responsibility for the information they publish and present as fact and original thought.

I would like to see the nation's newspapers stop the practice of running editorial opinions unsigned, attributed to an editorial board. A bonus of signed editorials for the Star Tribune would have been that the author of the editorial in question would have been identified and held accountable. Without a signature, the entire editorial board is suspect.

You may not always like what you read in the newspaper, or the way you are quoted. But the information you read should be factual, as much as is humanly possible, and you should have the opportunity to voice your opinions and objections in the media, as well. That is why newspapers print signed letters to the editor. Without authorship of news and opinion revealed, freedom of speech means little. 


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