Tag Archives: janet cooke

Skepticism: A copy editor’s best tool

1 Feb

The job of a copy editor extends way beyond grammar and spelling errors. Not to trivialize these important aspects of making a great article, an editor needs to be alert and ready to challenge both questionable story points and other information. Situations like what happened with Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke have proven that the shortcomings of editors have resulted in the deceit of audiences and a serious blow to the credibility of their respective publications. But what about the mistakes and oversights that occur on a daily basis?

According to a piece by the former managing editor of the Hartford Courant, it sometimes takes large-scale upsets to remind us of the importance of going over stories with a fine-toothed comb. Training editors not only in technical skills, but to practice using their own good judgement to question information and be able to point out a story’s flaws and weak spots.

Our biggest weakness is not the occasional dishonest reporter. Our biggest weakness is unchallenged information.

Fact checking is not merely something to do in the wake of a serious PR nightmare; it’s a practice that needs to be refined and put to use with every story that reaches the copy desk or before a reporter clicks “submit.” While depending on fact checking as a basis for news stories is a debatable issue, fact checking should be a major part of the writing process for every single article.

The Portland Oregonian uses a method with its editors and reporters that involves going line by line through the story to ensure that every bit of information has been covered by the reporter and can be backed up with legitimate data, logic and evidence. Although tedious, this kind of dedication to preventing the presentation of unconscious bias or misleading facts should be considered a  model for all publications and online media. This list on ACES outlines 10 tips for copy editors looking to be more wary when reading stories, including paying particular attention to dates, consulting maps for directions, and checking recent stories about similar issues. Having some hard-and-fast rules when editing stories can help prevent common mistakes that can often be the most lethal to story credibility. These questions to keep in mind also remind editors to polish ledes and headlines, as well as keep both big-picture ideas and details of a story in check with the overarching circumstances. In addition, one of the more elusive aspects of a story are statistics. Numbers are generally unfamiliar to journalists and writers, and without concrete proof, they’re incredibly difficult to verify and, therefore, deserve special attention.

Whether or not an editor uses a system or relies on their own best case-by-case judgment, it is his or her responsibility to their readership and credibility to be curious to the best of their abilities.

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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.