AT&D #25. Fabrication in Journalism

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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 allegations 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 reading through the article, I couldn’t believe the style of which the story and people involved were portrayed (very detailed and gruesome throughout). The second shock was based after the fact that someone can go as far as stretching the truth (even if such truth exists albeit being a generalization of certain aspects of society or in this case, one aspect) in order to gain attention for themselves, from their colleagues, etc. 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.

Without a doubt, Cooke was pressured by editors to come up with something notable or “gut-wrenching” and was motivated to achieve attention for her literary work and went at length to ensure it would happen by writing about something not only controversial but structuring it unconventionally (so it could quickly and effectively “pop out” to the public reading it).

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. 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 discretioned from viewing uneasy topics; with print, a parent or teen can 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 truthful and factual manner.

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