AT&D #25. Fabrication in Journalism

Janet Cooke (writer of the infamous article Jimmy’s World) won a Pulitzer Prize for her work, arguably the most prestigious award in journalism before of fraud were raised and ultimately proved. Does this case change the way you view journalistic storytelling? What ethical questions does it raise?

I must say that after reading Jimmy’s World and then finding out that the story was fabricated, I was shocked in two ways. The first shock I felt was immediate; when going through the article, I couldn’t believe the style in which the story and people involved were portrayed (evoking a detailed and gruesome feeling throughout as a reader envisioning the events happening based on how they were written).

The second shock comes to me as concerning how someone with an important, public job could go as far as stretching the truth (even if some actual truth exists as basis) in order to gain attention for themselves, from their colleagues, etc. Nonetheless, having learned some additional context of the situation, it is very clear that Janet Cooke was put under a lot of pressure to lie about her alma mater, falsify a story and even cover up such story by stating bogus claims until she came clean publicly.

Without a doubt, Cooke made a career mistake in fabricating a story and it is evident that workplace pressure on the part of her paper’s editors played a role in overclouding judgment regarding her actions. This, thereby led Cooke to come up with something notable or “gut-wrenching” for a story, fueled by motivation in gaining attention if her “literary work” was to resonate with a readership. Cooke went at length to ensure it would likely happen by writing about something not only controversial but something that in a way that feels unconventional, like a non-fiction story (so it could quickly and effectively “pop out” to the public reading about Cooke’s published work).

This case definitely is one that changes the way I feel about journalistic storytelling, even though I have known other cases of journalistic fraud. Going back to Cooke’s style of diction, tone, and background information, I was appalled at what was written; there are readers that tend to be sensitive when it comes to topics such as drugs and if I was an editor, a good chunk of this article would be rewritten and / or omitted to preserve journalistic integrity to the reading audience unless permission was gained in the first place by people directly involved with the story.

In fact, Cooke’s wording and written manner seems to mimic the journalistic style of on-air news reporters from TV magazine shows such as 20/20 or Inside Edition, where topics like Cooke’s fit the seriousness of those programs better. Maybe if Cooke was an honest journalist, she would be better served for TV journalism than print.

At least with TV journalism, viewers are given a discretion and warned in advance about potentially seeing and hearing details of uneasy topics; with print, a parent or teen could easily buy and access a newspaper and leave it out in the open for younger readers to pick up and possibly come across a topic that wouldn’t be suitable for them. Ethically, the fact that Cooke published a deceitful story was wrong and corrupts one of the most important creeds of journalism: to be honest and upfront with facts and information as people look up to the news (in any form) to learn about the world around them in a straightforward and factual manner.

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