Skeptical editing keeps newspapers from embarrassment

1 Feb

After reading the ‘Jimmy’s World’ story, I had quite a few questions. I can see how a story as compelling and disturbing as this story could keep editors from digging too deep.  However, digging deeper and getting to the truth of the matter is just what a good editor should do. The Janet Cooke story is a cautionary tale that I have heard in journalism classes for the past three years. Telling a good story is not as important as telling a true one. A few initial red flags went up when I was reading.

Some of my questions were:

  1. Did the writer get last names?
  2. How did the reporter find Jimmy, an eight year old that rarely goes to school?
  3. If he were not going to school except on rare occasions, why is no social worker looking into it?
  4. Is it possible for someone that young to take drugs, administered by a drugged man and not die?
  5. Would someone so young be able to function on those kinds of drugs?

After establishing my suspicions, I read about the question other journalists had on the story. I could see that I had missed some clear indicators that this story was false, but I was on the right track. I was questioning the plausibility that these things could happen, but I was missing key points. The fact that he the boyfriend injected Jimmy with the drugs in front of the reporter, Cooke, seems unlikely. On the other hand, I did think about how the drugs would effect and eight-year-old more significantly than they would a grown man and that was good reasoning. No matter what fact stands out to an editor as implausible though, the important thing here is for editors to read critically and follow up on any suspicions. This story ended up being a huge scandal and embarrassment to the Washington Post. Editors need to take keep this story in the back of their minds at all times. Reporters should also remember the disgrace this story brought to Cooke and try to establish a set of steps to follow in difficult ethical situations to avoid Cooke’s fate.

While it is tempting at times to let things slip past you that don’t seem quite right, the Janet Cooke story showed the entire journalism industry why allowing that is simply not an option. Editors must question even the most interesting and provocative stories from the most trustworthy reporters. Good editors know they must avoid complacency and keep their editing skills honed.



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