Friday, October 22, 2010

To what can we sign our names? (by Suzie)

Two newspapers in the Tampa Bay area ran the same writing, one as a letter to the editor and another as a commentary, saying that domestic-violence shelters put too much emphasis on women, often ignoring male victims. The letter and commentary touted the national nonprofit Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women, and both were signed by Elka Zwick of St. Petersburg.

In researching the Maine-based organization, I found a Utah newspaper that had printed the same article, signed by Jan Brown and Heather Fortune, co-directors of DAHMW. I left a message for Brown, asking who wrote the original. I called Zwick, who referred me back to Brown, who acknowledged writing it. (I just found another letter, pared down a bit, signed by Mary Browning in the Birmingham News.)

The article went out to volunteers across the country in hopes they would submit it to newspapers, Brown said. “We were afraid people wouldn’t print it if it didn’t have a local name on it."

She’s correct – the media prefers a local angle. As an editor, however, I would never have printed something with someone’s name attached if that person had not actually written it. As a blogger, I would not want to see a post with one person’s name on it on one site and another person’s name on it on a different site.

The domestic-violence program in St. Petersburg is CASA (Community Action Stops Abuse), and Brown recalls them being better than others. She said she worked with a man who also got help from CASA. So, why seek to print an article criticizing DV shelters in a city that has a good one? Brown said she didn't mean to target CASA.

I’m concerned about the damage this article might do to local DV shelters, and I’m irritated by media that publishes information that it has not verified.

The incident also made me think about what writing we claim as our own. If I steal someone’s writing, that’s plagiarism. But what about when the writer and signer work together? People sign their names to emails, written by nonprofits, that are then sent to Congress. Politicians speak words crafted by their staffs. Assistants write letters that their bosses sign.

We need to learn to look past the signature.

P.S. Please save the discussion of the DV issues until my next post. I'm finding some interesting stuff.