Journalism Pros React to Ethics Accusation Against Drew Sharp of Freep

Theft in journalism isn't always an open-and-shut case of getting caught red-handed with word-for-word pilfering from an article, book or Wikipedia.

Sometimes the gun isn't smoking, just warm in a suspicious way.

Posted Monday night at Detroit Sports Rag.

In online discussions about a situation that became public Christmas Eve, journalists and readers are considering whether Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp committed plagiarism by intentionally using a blogger's work without credit.

"We have talked to close to a dozen journalism professionals, professors and teachers regarding Sharp’s behavior," reports Justin Spiro, an independent writer who broke the story at Detroit Sports Rag and posts a follow-up Monday night (right). 

It was unanimous that this was an egregious act of plagiarism perpetrated by Sharp. This group includes writers for the Freep, Detroit News and MLive.

Others condemn Sharp for sloppy, unfair corner-cutting. 

Anna Clark, a prolific Detroit journalist and author who contributes regularly to Columbia Journalism Review, tells Deadline she's surprised by "the mischaracterization of the incident as plagiarism."

She explains in a message Tuesday: "Sharp didn't copy the guy's words and present them as his own. He did fail to cite his source, and therefore presented reporting [and] interviewing as his own when it was not that. That's terrible. I've had that happen to me before, and it makes me furious.

"It's a different kind of journalistic sin, though, than plagiarism or fabrication (the Mitch Albom thing this keeps getting compared to.) But I think people are so used to thinking of 'plagiarism' as being the Worst Thing That Journalists Could Do, they use that word to name anything that a journalist does that they shouldn't do. It makes for some erroneous assumptions on what Sharp's punishment should be."

Clark, who's "not a huge fan of Sharp," sees the impromptu teach-in about his situation as a good thing. "It's an opportunity to clarify the subtleties of what is and is not the behavior of credible journalism -- something all reporters and all news consumers should do from time to time. And it shows how much people value good journalism in the first place."  

A local automotive journalist uses the word "theft" while also framing the case as an unwelcome sign of how traditional standards erode in an online free-for-all.

"Attribution has taken a backseat (much like proper style) to getting real info," Motor Trend digital editor Scott Burgess notes Tuesday in a Facebook thread about Sharp. "Sadly, we see this more often not because of the rush of deadline, but because its easy, lazy and something we're seeing with the development of passive/aggressive reporting. It's vanity, lying and theft. . . . The more transparent the sourcing, the more honest the story."

No one -- including the Free Press, which has been mum -- defends Sharp's fast-and-loose use of a primary source interview and other research posted at isportsweb Nov. 20 by Lansing-area blogger David Harns. 

► See background: Sports Blogger Tells How He Realized 'Something Was Amiss' About Freep Column

Coverage Sunday at a national sports blog.

Critics include national sports blogger Ken Fang of Providence, R.I. "Three weeks [after Harns' post], the Detroit Free Press picked up the story through a column by Drew Sharp. The only problem is that it wasn’t a different story, it was practically the same story," he writes in a post pictured at left.

"We have seen writers like Ron Borges and John Tomase in Boston be disciplined for plagiarizing," Fang adds, "but for Sharp to be allowed to continue writing despite an obvious lifting of an article is not only strange, but extremely puzzling.

"Perhaps it feels by making a donation to charity, the Free Press has made the matter go away. . . . But with the Sports Rag bringing the story to light, it’s not going away and the scrutiny may just be starting."  

Indeed, that Detroit blog contributes to the discussion it started by posting this comment (excerpted) from Fred Brown, a former Denver Post editor who teaches media ethics at the University of Denver and is on a national journalism society's ethics committee:

[Sharp's action] does appear to be an example of the basic definition of plagiarism, which is to use someone else's work without giving the originator credit.

The Detroit Free Press acknowledged that, eventually, bt not clearly or forcefully enough to satisfy Sharp's (apparently) many critics. . . .

He has value as an entertainer and provocateur. Unfortunately, a reputation like that makes a regrettable number of columnists lazy and smug.

Drew Sharp "has value as an entertainer and provocateur," a media ethics instructor says.

In his social media comment Tuesday, automotive journalist Scott Burgess of Royal Oak -- an assistant business editor at The Detroit News in 2005-06 -- says:

Reporters cut and paste quotes from press releases without correctly attributing it to the press release, often to give the impression they actually interviewed the source instead of just read an email.

Reporters copy paragraphs and paragraphs of wire copy and sometimes include a tag at the end of a story saying Bloomberg contributed to this story. So why are we surprised with reporters treat bloggers' info the same way? 

While we're on the topics of attribution and transparency: Burgess is quoted from two comments under a Deadline article's link at this writer's personal Facebook page.

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