Monday, November 24, 2008

Janet Cooke: "Jimmy's World"

Janet Cooke was a reporter for the Washington Post when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her feature about a third-generation, 8-year-old heroin addict. Two days after receiving the award, Janet confessed that the story was fabricated. She later returned the Pulitzer Prize, and resigned from The Post.

Cooke had worked at the Post for two years before being offered a position as a “Weeklies” writer. To solidify her position, Cooke lied about her background. She claimed she had studied at the Sorbonne University, had a degree from Vassar College and received an award from her previous job at the Toledo Blade newspaper.

On Sept. 29, 1980, The Post published an article by Cooke titled “Jimmy’s World.” The article told the story of Jimmy, a young boy addicted to heroin living in a drug-dealing household. The story became an overnight controversy, and cultivated intense sympathy among readers including the mayor of Washington, D.C.

Urged on by social outrage, the mayor and other city officials organized a search for the boy. Suspicion arose about the story’s validity when the search was unsuccessful. Yet, to calm citizens, the mayor claimed that Jimmy was known to the city and receiving treatment.

Despite mounting suspicions about the story, The Post defended Cooke and her story. Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward later submitted “Jimmy’s World” for the Pulitzer Prize. Cooke won, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in April 1981.

When editors at the Toledo Blade read her biography from the Pulitzer, they noticed discrepancies. The two universities she had lied about, also noticed the discrepancies and phoned the Post. Further investigation exposed that Cooke’s had lied to The Post about her credentials. Pressured by her editors, Cooke confessed to everything.

Post publisher, Donald Graham, held a press conference two days after the prize was awarded and admitted the story was fabricated. A public apology appeared in the next day’s edition. Cooke then resigned from The Post and returned the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1982, she appeared on the Phil Donahue show to explain her situation. She claimed that the high-pressure environment had “corrupted her judgment.” She said sources had hinted at the existence of a child like Jimmy. However, when she was unable to find such a child, she fabricated the story to satisfy her editors.

In the journalism world, composite characters are acceptable. However, the audience must clearly be aware that the character is a composite and not an actual person. Typical characters are named something obvious like “John Doe,” or something average like "Mary" or "Joe" to clearly show that the character is an example. Readers will accept hypothetical illustrations if they deal with average-sounding people as examples.

Janet Cooke broke journalistic and ethical rules when she created the character Jimmy. She went into such detail and presented him in such a way that he went from being a composite character to a real boy. Cooke presented quotes in a manner that implied she had interviewed an actual person. She also falsified quotes from experts, and created quotes from Jimmy’s family.

Though Cooke claimed to have been over-worked, and simply trying to please her editors, what she did is unforgivable in the journalism world. Not only did she bring suspicion to the Washington Post, but also the rest of the journalism community. Each time readers are confronted with lapses in ethical judgment like Cooke’s, their trust in media waivers.

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