Tag Archives: fact checks

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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