07/13/2010 10:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reporters Should Call McInnis' Lapse What It Apparently Is: Plagiarism

If you read Westword, you might think that Scott McInnis had an utterly unique writing style on display in his 150 pages of water articles for the Hasan Family Foundation.

If so, you were wrong, because the writing wasn't unique to McInnis. Some of it was penned by now Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs, according to a Spot Blog post in The Denver Post.

In a deal McInnis called "sweet," the gubernatorial candidate received $300,000 from the foundation for a two year fellowship, mostly to write water articles. That's $2,000 per page.

Now the deal looks even sweeter, work-wise. The Spot post reports that sentences and paragraphs in McInnis' Hasan writings are identical to Hobbs' work.

According to the Spot, The Post will publish more details, including samples of the identical writings, in the newspaper tomorrow.

Strangely, however, The Post did not use the word "plagiarism" to describe the identical writings. The Post did not use the P word in its blog post today.

Neither did The Post use the word "plagiarism" in a blog post earlier this year when Jane Norton lifted a quote, almost exactly, from Gerry Ford. She used it the announcement of her U.S. Senate bid.

I blogged at the time that The Post should have used the word "plagiarism" to describe Norton's lapse--and that reporters should have demanded an explanation from Norton, even though the plagiarism looked minor to many people.

Norton said, "I believe a government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government that's big enough to take everything you have."

Ford said, "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have."

This may look like simple sloganeering, but for writers and people in public life, this is serious stuff, resulting sometimes in lost jobs and ruined careers.

One of the most respected ethicists in the journalism world, Prof. Robert Steele, who is the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute and the Director of the Jane Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, agreed with me about the Norton quote. Here's what he wrote me regarding Norton:

If one uses a common understanding of plagiarism - using the specific words or nearly exact thoughts of someone else and claiming them as your original writing or thoughts - then Norton's use of this quote falls into that category.

My guess is that many politicians have used a variation of this phrase over the years to capture an ideological position about the role of government in our society. If Norton had just taken the broad concept and stated it in her own words, she might have been OK. For instance, if she said something like, "A government that gives can take. We should be wary of big government that promises too much and makes us pay back all we receive," she would have made her point (albeit with a less resounding quote) and avoided the plagiarism trap.

Given her use of the exact wording, Norton should have attributed the phrase to Ford (assuming he was the originator of the phrase and didn't borrow it himself from someone else).

If a journalist used this same exact phrase without attribution, I would want to know how it happened. I would ask the journalist how and why she/he used that phrase and why it wasn't attributed. I would also check other work produced by that journalist to see if there are other problems with attribution. I would discipline the journalist based on the extent and reason for the failure in this case and whether the journalist has a history of plagiarism. That discipline could range from a serious reprimand to a suspension to dismissal.

In this case, I would ask Norton some questions. How did this happen? Did you write this speech? If so, where did you get that line? If not, who wrote the speech and/or that line? Perhaps one of her speech writers did this. Norton, as the person who used the words is still primarily responsible, of course. I would also do some plagiarism checking of her other speeches to see if this is a recurring problem.

I made certain that Steele saw that Norton's words weren't exactly the same as Ford's.

"Norton's words are very, very close to the exact wording of the Ford quote and her expression of this thought is almost verbatim to Ford's expression," he wrote back. "Norton should have attributed the statement to Ford. By not doing so, she claimed it as her original thought. That's wrong."

If that's what Steele had to say about Norton's plagiarism, you can only imagine what he'd say about McInnis' apparent plagiarism, which involves numerous sentences and paragraphs, according to The Spot.

Norton's plagiarism is likely tiny potatoes compared to what everyone expects to see from McInnis in tomorrow's Denver Post.

If that's true, then journalists should definitely call it plagiarism, and all the questions suggested by Steele are in order. Already, for example, the McInnis campaign is, according to the Spot, blaming the plagiarism on someone else. Steele would want reporters to ask why McInnis is not taking responsibility.

Interestingly, Post reporters did use the P word at least once this year. When Vice President Joe Biden came to Denver in April, GOP chair Dick Wadhams joked to a Post reporter about Joe Biden's past plagiarism problems. In a piece quoting Wadhams, the Spot reported that Vice President Joe Biden was accused of "plagiarism."

I emailed a Post editor and reporter asking why the word "plagiarism" wasn't used to describe McInnis' lapse, but I did not get an immediate response.