Tag Archives: case study

Case Study 2: Jimmy’s World

31 Jan

To this day, it baffles journalists and readers alike how a story like Jimmy’s World could have made it to the front page of The Washington Post without an inkling of its falsity. Were the Post’s editors simply dazzled by a wonderful tale, and does this prove an inherent flaw in the editing system? Even the best journalists are just people, but what was it about this story that blinded seasoned, pragmatic professionals?

First, it’s important to note some flaws in the story itself —

  • If Jimmy only sometimes attended school, why didn’t his teachers contact home about his absences? Public schools have limits about how much school a child can miss and have strict truancy guidelines.
  • Both Jimmy and his family’s speech patterns were inconsistent with urban language and usual English.
  • Why did the social worker Cooke spoke with not do anything to help Jimmy?
  • Heroin is expensive, so why would Ron, an experienced drug deal, regularly waste lucrative drugs on an 8 year old?
  • His mother’s attitude changed from the beginning of the story as hesitant to watch Jimmy shoot up to not “giving a f—” about him as a baby. When did her attitude toward him change so dramatically?

Given these inconsistencies, I would have been eager to call both Jimmy’s school and the Southeast Neighborhood House to verify their quotes and contributions had I been the story’s copy editor. In addition, I would have asked to see Cooke’s notes and study them intensely to note the blatant attitude change when speaking with the mother. According to a report from a workshop given by William G. Connolly (a retired New York Times editor), the sources’ identities were to be kept confidential. However, it would  be the responsibility of the reporter to at least try to talk to the family to have the story verified through an editor, especially since they appeared so willing to divulge their secrets. In addition, to assume Cooke’s solid record before would not yield questionable material is editorially irresponsible.

A Time article that was published 30 years after Cooke’s hoax mentions the “anti-skeptic” effect that stories about drugs and addiction can have on both readers and editors. Because the general audience and the filter the stories go through usually have no first-hand experience in the world of addiction and drug dealing, inconsistencies can get buried beneath vividly painted images and deep-rooted stereotypes.

Other supposed drug epidemics have been making waves in the media without much truthfulness to their prevalence. For example, the urban myth of “pharming parties” being all the rage among high school students has almost no basis aside from parents being fearful of the next dangerous youth trend. An article from Slate brings to light how even the most respectable media giants and local papers have been falling victim to this absurd but tempting trend story since 2006 and before. Quotes from experts with no supporting evidence (and no further research on the part of the reporter) have zero value and can heavily alter reality for parents who depend on a credible website, newspaper or broadcaster for information.

In the end, the onus falls on the editor to verify a story’s validity. Despite dazzling details, copy editors have a responsibility to their writers, readers and companies to be skeptical and alert.

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Case Study 1: Eagle Scoops Dog

24 Jan

The story of a bald eagle snatching up an unsuspecting small dog outside of a gas station to the helpless horror of its owners is nothing short of a juicy story. However, the lack of evidence supporting the sparse details of the story itself lends itself to suspicion. According to Snopes.com, a website dedicated to debunking common myths and urban legends, the story of a dog being scooped up by a rogue bald eagle has been circulating for years with no evidence supporting the plausibility of the tale. My lab discussed the story and what questions we would have for the reporter and editor had the story crossed our desks to run in the paper.

The lack of tangible details about the story raised a number of questions —

  • What breed of dog was it? What was it’s name?
  • What were the names of the couple who owned the dog? How long did they own the dog?
  • How many witnesses saw this incident?
  • Are there any testimonials from the victims?
  • Is it physically possible for an eagle to lift a small dog and fly away with it?
The fact that these questions went unanswered left many holes open and pressing these inconsistencies as issues could have prevented a newspaper publishing a fabricated story.

 

There are many experts who could answer the biological and habitual questions regarding bald eagles, such as a local Wildlife Conservation Society chapter. When I was an intern with NBC Miami this past summer, I had access to an entire contact list of experts in a wide variety of disciplines, which came in handy when writing stories about topics that are unfamiliar. For instance, I researched a story about a large python that had been found in someone’s farm, and I called a local wildlife information source to verify the details of the story and of the snake’s rescue.

 

Even if a database that extensive is not easily accessible, there are many websites dedicated to sorting fact from fiction that can be a great basis for finding the right questions to ask. This article on the blog Vikitech lists six helpful websites such as PolitiFact and TruthOrFiction to help journalists make sense of inconsistencies and questionable facts. The website Quora would also be useful for researching questionable situations like this. For instance, a journalist could pose a question to find a wide array of sources, such as experts, or if anyone had heard of a similar story and if that story had more substantial support. Joy Mayer, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, posed a question on Quora as to how journalists could use the social media tool, and most of the answers were focused on using it to locate sources and experts that could lead to a follow-up and more in-depth investigating. On my own Quora account, I asked how student journalists could get the most out of the website. While Quora would not be the end-all-be-all of reporting, it’s certainly a useful tool for finding sources  and leads.

 

In the end, a lack of information about this particular incident, even if scientific evidence supporting its plausibility was available, is still suspicious enough to warrant holding off on this wild tale until more facts could be verified. Moral of the story: Don’t fall prey to a juicy scoop without a solid waffle cone to support it. I’ll work on the metaphors, I promise.