By Steve Neavling
Motor City Muckraker
More than a month after allegations surfaced that Detroit Free Press sports reporter Drew Sharp plagiarized a story, he is back on the job this week, and the newspaper is refusing to publicly acknowledge anything happened.
The failure to respond to the allegations has perplexed and angered some Free Press reporters and journalism experts who question why the state’s largest newspaper would hide behind one of journalism’s most egregious violations.
After all, newspapers demand accountability from everyone they interview, from business owners and politicians to police and authors. But the Free Press, for whatever reason, is refusing to hold itself accountable, which some say raises questions about the newspaper’s credibility.
“If you mess up, you fess up,” Jack Lessenberry, head of the journalism program at Wayne State University, said about ethical journalism violations. “It’s bad form and undermines a news organization’s credibility.”
Lessenberry said newspapers need to hold themselves to the same standards they hold for everyone else.
“We need to be open about our failings,” said Lessenberry, who also is the ombudsman for the Toledo Blade. “People respect when someone apologizes.”
The Free Press’ failure to respond to the well-documented allegations is the antithesis of how the newspaper handled star columnist Mitch Albom in 2005 when he fabricated details in a story. The newspaper responded on the front page of the newspaper that it was “undertaking a thorough review of the situation” and assigned five reporters and an editor to examine more than 600 columns by Albom. The team found that Albom often quoted other news outlets without giving attribution and was disciplined.
But when David Harns, of isportsweb.com, notified the Free Press that Sharp lifted details of his Nov. 20 story about a 25-year-old quadriplegic’s adoration of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, the newspaper allowed Sharp to continue writing for nearly two weeks and made no public mention of the incident, other than to later state on the Dec. 3 story that the proper attribution had been added. No other explanation was given.
Since then, the Free Press and the Detroit Newspaper Guild have refused to discuss the Sharp story or say whether he was disciplined or whether an investigation was conducted to determine if there was a pattern of lifting information from other outlets without attribution.
The silence has incensed some Free Press reporters, who said Sharp’s actions demand a public explanation from the newspaper because ignoring the problem discredits the rest of Sharp’s colleagues.
“We all look bad because of this,” one reporter told me, speaking on condition of anonymity because the newspaper forbids journalists from speaking despairingly about the Free Press. “Just explain what happened. Our readers deserve to know.”
Harns explains in detail how the events unfolded and concluded that “Sharp talked to Cook in the hallway for about 5 minutes, used my story to supplement the information he gained from that interview, and published it completely as his own work.”
Soon after the discovery, Sharp failed to appear on Detroit Sports 105.1 FM, where he recently became the co-host of “Derry and Sharp.”
The allegations, first revealed by Detroit Sports Rag, took some in the local sports community by storm.
For the past week, top Free Press editors and Sharp have declined to respond to numerous Motor City Muckraker requests for comment.
Do you think the newspaper owes the public an explanation?
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.