Business Week has fired a reporter for plagiarizing part of an article on computer privacy that had appeared two months earlier in The Washington Post.
Marcia Stepanek was dismissed after an internal inquiry found that her Oct. 30 report on the company Pharmatrak was, in part, lifted from the newspaper's Aug. 15 account.
"We fired her because we found she had seriously breached our journalistic standards, our ethical policies," Editor in Chief Stephen Shepard said in an interview yesterday. "We did a very thorough look and we didn't like what we found. We took it very, very seriously."
Stepanek said, "I strongly disagree with Business Week's decision to terminate my employment. There was no intent to plagiarize. I was sloppy with my notes but nothing more. I have a great deal of respect for The Post and its writers, and as a journalist I never intentionally use material from someone else's story without attribution."
The Business Week piece not only included similar language to that of a Post story by Robert O'Harrow Jr. but, in one case, a virtually identical quote. Shepard said he could not confirm that Stepanek had gotten the information independently. The magazine had already apologized in an editor's note.
In the story on how Pharmatrak was gathering information on computer users, The Post story quoted Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm as saying, "They've taken stealth to a new low. . . . It is a classic example of corporate surveillance. There's no way your average computer user has any idea."
The Business Week story quoted what it called a "statement" from Granholm: "They're taking stealth to a new low. It is a classic example of corporate surveillance, and there's no way your average computer user has any idea this is going on."
The Post story said: "A Boston technology firm is surreptitiously tracking computer users across the Internet on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, a practice that demonstrates the limits of a recent agreement to protect the privacy of Web surfers."
Business Week said: "A Boston technology company is surreptitiously tracking computer users across the Net on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, a practice that demonstrates the limits of that recent FTC agreement."
Stepanek, who previously worked for Hearst Newspapers and Knight Ridder Newspapers, has won various journalism awards, including two during her three years with Business Week. "I've had a pretty spotless career," she said, declining to talk about the Pharmatrak story on her attorney's advice. As for plagiarism, she added, "I'm not wired that way."
Stepanek's colleagues were taken aback. "There's a consensus that what she did was inexcusable, but wide disagreement on the sentence for the crime," one staffer said. "She's very popular personally."
The Business Week inquiry began after a letter of complaint from a senior Post editor. "We were satisfied with the editor's note they put in the magazine and had no further involvement," said Jill Dutt, the paper's assistant managing editor for financial news. "Obviously, taking something from someone else's story is one of the most serious mistakes you can make as a journalist."
After a series of high-profile plagiarism and fabrication cases in 1998 involving such publications as the Boston Globe and New Republic, the news business is being plagued by an outbreak of less publicized incidents. The Sacramento Bee fired a political reporter for stealing quotes and information from U.S. News & World Report. The San Jose Mercury News fired a reporting intern for lifting material from The Post and other newspapers. The Detroit News expressed regret for lifting an item from another paper. The features editor of the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Sun News quit after using other material as her own.
Shepard said he had "no other recourse. . . . We printed a story that contained material from The Washington Post without permission, authorization or attribution. That's a fact, and we apologize for that."