Jimmy’s world or Janet’s?
If I hadn’t been directed to read “Jimmy’s World” with skepticism, I probably wouldn’t have picked up on the story’s red flags, just as Janet Cooke’s editors didn’t.
The story doesn’t lack detail, and Cooke’s voice is compelling. The questions a skeptical editor would raise are obvious if you read the story looking for inconsistencies, but by just scanning the story and allowing yourself to be part of the picture being painted, it all just seems to be real.
The red flags I spotted while reading the story were:
1. Jimmy is very astute and articulate for being 8 years old
2. It seemed odd that the mother was OK with doing drugs in front of or with her son rather than doing them in a room with her boyfriend
3. The house is nicely furnished and Jimmy wears nice clothes, but strangers wander in and out of the house and bedrooms. They don’t steal?
4. The easiness with which the adults talked with Cooke seemed suspicious. Ron even shot up an 8-year-0ld in front of her?
5. The description of Jimmy — sandy hair, brown eyes and brown skin — doesn’t seem to fit the mother’s description of them as “black folks.”
Compared to the story, “Eagle Snatches Dog While Owner Watches,” the issues with “Jimmy’s World” are much harder to spot, but perhaps the human ability to fabricate such a detailed and compelling story is the precise reason that editors have to hone their abilities to edit skeptically and never trust a story’s credibility based off the author or its appeal.
Cooke apparently also lied about her credentials, and in a GQ article she said, “The conclusion I’ve come to is that lying, from a very early age, was the best survival mechanism available,” according to a Washington Post blog post.
It seems like common sense, but with fabricated stories still being published, it seems that there maybe isn’t enough importance on also skeptically reviewing the reporters themselves. Apparently the government can’t background check who it allows to investigate stories, but the organization hiring can. At the very least, looking into someone’s academic records can’t be that difficult. (Cooke lied about her college education.)
An issue related to complete fabrication that should also be brought up is anonymous sources.
There are many instances in which anyonymous sources have been the catalyst for exposing an issue that wouldn’t have otherwise become public, and there are prominent publications that use them correctly. But there are also instances of untrue information leaking from untrustworthy, unnamed sources.
“Jimmy’s World” and the anonymous sources issue above relating to the O.J. Simpson story emphasize the need for editors to skeptically edit, as well as always remain skeptical of the writer. Editors should always remember that fact checking is part of skeptical editing. Not only should the story pass a bull—- meter, its facts should be concrete and checked.
As a brief sidenote, an interesting tool that online writing has introduced to fact checking is the ability for readers to immediately comment on a story, and perhaps catch an untrue fact. Assuming the writer is aware of his or her readers commenting on errors, the writer can then also immediately fix the error, as opposed to waiting until the next day’s paper to appologize and make corrections.