Most of this column is going to be copied from another writer. He knew how to say what I want to tell you much better than I could ever do.
While I am at it, let me confess that most of what I write for you each week comes from material other people have written or told me. So very little is really original. I try to give credit where credit is due, but I am not sure I always get it right. NPR summarizes the general rule as follows: “Attribute, attribute and attribute some more. No material from another source should ever be included verbatim, or substantially so, without attribution.”
I worry most about this rule when I write about my favorite eateries. When I consider featuring a restaurant, I try to read what others have written. If Bob Garner, John Shelton Reed, or any of North Carolina’s other great food writers have something to say about a place, I want to know what they know. If they have unique insights, I might quote them, or otherwise give them credit when I share something they taught me. But I worry that I might not always get it right. It is hard for me, and I know it must be much more difficult for a news reporter working on deadline to handle attribution perfectly every time.
Here is where I quote Gary Pearce, the wise political adviser and former journalist, who captured my thoughts about a recent news item in Raleigh’s The News & Observer better than I can express them.
In a piece about things at the N&O that he was “not sure what to think about,” Pearce wrote the following:
“I do know what to think about the N&O’s decision to, as the editor put it, ‘part ways’ with Anne Blythe. I don’t know Blythe well, but I’ve read her stories for years. She has struck me as a consummate professional and a superb reporter on stories involving courts, trials and legal issues.
“The editor wrote, ‘We…examined more than 600 stories published since January 2016 (by Blythe). We found at least a dozen that contained phrases, sentences or, in some cases, whole paragraphs, lifted from other publications.’
“A dozen out of 600? Containing ‘phrases, sentences or, in some cases, whole paragraphs’ (like what?) ‘lifted from other publications’ (like which?).
“Insiders say Blythe wasn’t given a chance to explain or defend herself. Was that fair to a 30-year employee? Certainly, the N&O would demand more answers if the Governor, or Trump, fired somebody that way.
“As an N&O alum, I care about how the paper treats its people. This decision strikes me as an unfair and unjust overreaction.
“We all know the newspaper faces a challenge in today’s media marketplace and ‘fake news’ climate. Long-time readers and fans, like me, are pulling for it. But we’re puzzled–and sometimes troubled–by some things we see. Online and in print.”
After reading Pearce’s commentary, I found N&O executive editor Robyn Tomlin’s letter explaining her decision. The letter included a list of Blythe’s articles that allegedly contained material “improperly taken from sources without attribution.”
Each article is now marked with, “Editor’s Note: Since publication, the N&O has learned that passages from this story were taken in large part or in whole from [the alleged source article].”
I looked at several of these articles and the source. I could not identify an example of substantial passages that “were taken in large part or in whole” from the source article. Surely there were some, but like Pearce, you have to ask “like what?” and “like which?”
I also know Blythe and admire her 30-plus-years of exemplary journalism and her lifetime of quiet commitment to others. The N&O also has a well-earned reputation for fairness and prudence.
A careful and deliberate reevaluation by the N&O of Blythe’s situation could prevent unnecessary damage to two hard-earned reputations.