Tag Archives: janet cooke

The Aftermath of Writing on Janet Cooke

11 Oct

Writing the article on Janet Cooke was a process that I had not anticipated to be as difficult as it initially was. In retrospect, I should have planned out contacting people better so that I could be prepared for a lack of sources The Washington Post. Despite this, the article in itself was a success in my mind.

The information I found regarding Janet Cooke was surprising because I had not expected such an in depth scandal that not only affected the Washington Post, but the entire nation. Additionally, I was surprised because research that I had conducted prior to beginning this capping project resonated in my mind throughout the process of writing the Janet Cooke story.

In “When News Reporters Deceive: The Production of Stereotypes,” study by Dominic Lasorsa and Jia Dai (2007), it is stated that “because deceptive reporters are not motivated to produce accurate stories they automatically tend to fall back on stereotypes” (Lasorsa and Dai, 2007). I found this to be true in reading the article, “Jimmy’s World,” by Janet Cooke. In her article she repeatedly makes stereotypical statements, yet they would go unnoticed because they are presented as quotes from her “sources.”

Cooke wrote “When you live in the ghetto, it’s all a matter of survival. If he wants to get away from it when he’s older, then that’s his thing. But right now, things are better for us than they’ve ever been. . . . Drugs and black folk been together for a very long time.” This is a quote describing how Jimmy’s mother felt about him being addicted to heroin. Relying on a stereotype of minorities and drug addiction is an example of what Lasorsa and Dai (2007) were explaining in their study.

This study also examined that deceptive, stereotypical news stories are more negative in tonality than others. This holds true for “Jimmy’s World” because the story was a negative portrayal of the ghettos of Washington, DC and the activities that go on within them. The entire nature of the story is negative, Jimmy, the young heroin addict, is a child that is the product of a rape and he does not attend school or have any ambitions that do not concern drugs. This overall tone, paired with the stereotypical depiction of the minority groups, agrees with the general assessment made by Lasorsa and Dai (2007).

Cooke’s motivation for doing this in her article may be attributed to a number of things. Lasorsa and Dai (2007) offer the possibility that seeking a story of prominence could drive a journalist to fabricate a story. They write “A reporter motivated to produce captivating stories rather than accurate ones might advance her stories by offering “impressive” sources who say just the “right” thing, thereby helping catapult her stories into prominence” (Lasorsa and Dai, 2007). In Cooke’s case, her sources said exactly what was needed to make the story one that pulled on the heartstrings of America and highlighted the problem of drug addictions in the ghettos.

Whether this decision to fabricate the story was due to pressure, psychological issues, cognitive laziness or the desire to move up in the ranks will remain unknown. All that can be offered are suggestions and interpretations that provide possibilities for why Cooke wrote the story she did 31 years ago.

Continuing with the series, I will now move away from the Janet Cooke scandal and onto the next scandalous journalist. The next story with be written on Jonathan Broder, former journalist of the Chicago Tribune.


To read the article I have written on Janet Cooke for The Circle, visit the website at the following link: http://www.maristcircle.com/features/the-fabricated-reality-of-jimmy-s-world-1.2636901#.TpSzXGuur9A


The Fabricated Reality of “Jimmy’s World”

10 Oct

What happens when the news leads its readers astray? Journalists, those who are entrusted with delivering the truth, can be the very ones to fabricate and manipulate that truth until its unrecognizable altogether. In 1980, this was the case with Janet Cooke and her story that took the nation by storm.

Last week marked the 31 year anniversary of Janet Cooke’s story “Jimmy’s World” that was published in the Washington Post on Sept. 28, 1980. This story followed the daily life of an 8 year old heroin addict living in the ghetto of Washington, DC, containing quotes from the child, Jimmy, and his mother and drug supplier, who has supposedly had him addicted since age 5. The article unveils the struggles of living in the ghetto and growing up in a world full of drugs, without an end in sight. The entire story, however, is a fabrication.

After publishing the story, people across the nation expressed their sympathy and action was taken to search out the young boy to help him obtain treatment for his addiction. The mayor at the time, Marion Barry, and Chief of Police, Burtell Jefferson, called together social workers and the police force to search for the boy Cooke had written about. A reward of up to $10,000 was offered to anyone who could find this fictitious child.

As the search went on for this young heroin addict, skepticism concerning the story began to mount. This came to a pinnacle in April, 1981. On April 13, 1981, Cooke was announced as Pulitzer Prize winner for her story “Jimmy’s World.” The Toledo Blade, Cooke’s previous employer, published a column praising Cooke’s work and including biographical information on the journalist. The Associated Press published a similar account. However, the facts concerning Cooke’s background did not match up.

The facts Cooke had provided to the Post concerning her educational background were checked, and proved to be false. Cooke had fabricated what schools she attended, what degrees she earned and what awards she won over her lifetime. Soon after, questions concerning her prize-winning article became the focus of the Washington Post. Hard-pressed to reveal names of sources and locations of interviews, Cooke finally admitted that the story was a fabrication, resigned from the Post and rescinded her acceptance of the Pulitzer Prize.

The Washington Post printed a response entitled “Janet’s World – The story of a Child Who Never Existed, How and Why it Came to be Published” on April 19, 1981 by Bill Green, acting ombudsman for the Post at that time. This article chronicled the events leading up to the publishing of “Jimmy’s World,” and the events that took place thereafter which led to Cooke’s eventual downfall.

Bob Woodward, investigative reporter for The Washington Post who was responsible for much of the reporting during the Watergate Scandal, commented on the events that took place saying “I’ve never felt as negligent.”

While decades have passed, “Jimmy’s World” still stands as a testament to the pressures facing journalists in the world of news today. Cooke blamed her actions concerning the article on the pressure being put on her by the Washington Post. Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Post, has been cited saying “there is no question about the pressures and competition in The Washington Post’s newsroom. They are powerful. Some people flourish, others get crushed. It is major-league journalism.”

Yet, in the world of “major-league journalism,” where every journalist is competing for the front page, can the pressure really drive a journalist to the edge of ethical decisions?

From an editor’s perspective, the answer is no, the commitment should always be to providing the truth, whether or not that truth was the original story being sought. Professor Gerald T. McNulty, director of the Communication Internship Program at Marist College and long-time working editor for the Poughkeepsie Journal and various publications in Vermont, believes that pressure is no excuse for foregoing the social responsibility that journalists are entrusted with.

While Cooke claims she was under increased pressure to provide a story about a young boy addicted to drugs, there was never any confirmation of this.

“The underlying premise is that any article in the news can be proven,” McNulty said.

This is the common consensus when it comes to the duty that a journalist has to provide the public with the truth. Cooke’s so-called facts and claims that she was pushed to fabricate the story were unable to be proven, and all that remained was the lie that created widespread impact. Despite the pressures that she may have encountered on the job, the priority of a news story is to state the facts, first and foremost.

When Cooke abandoned the truth, she abandoned the ethics that guide journalists around the world. Cooke’s story is an example of one of many scandals in journalism. She lost her career, her Pulitzer Prize, her reputation and her credibility.  Although the Washington Post was unable to comment on these events at this time, 31 years have passed and “Jimmy’s World” remains a scandal connected to The Washington Post that is all but forgotten.

“We print what is the truth,” McNulty stated. “You can’t just change the rules without consequences.”


This was the final product of the first scandalism story. The article can be found on the Marist Circle website at http://www.maristcircle.com/features/the-fabricated-reality-of-jimmy-s-world-1.2636901#.TpNjOGuur9A

Sometimes You Hit a Wall

4 Oct

The story of Janet Cooke’s scandal is underway and almost ready to submit for editing. It has been an interesting process. Yet, as many journalists do, I hit a wall when searching for information.

The information available online concerning the story and the events that took place thereafter were more than forthcoming. Despite the Washington Post wanting monetary compensation for looking at an article from the archives, which I was able to avert anyway, the process was moving along nicely. I had come into contact with the Public Relations Department at the Post and spoken to someone who said she would be happy to help if I sent her an email. I also emailed the Communications Department and current ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton. Pexton has been the only one to return my emails as of yet.

This is where I met my obstacle. The article is written up to a point, what it requires now is firsthand information from the Post or someone who had any sort of involvement in the Cooke scandal. Although it took place 30 years ago, I know that there are people out there willing to talk. What it is about now is finding that person. I have emailed back the ombudsman, as well as Post staff members Bob Woodward and Milton Coleman, both of whom had direct involvement in the Cooke events.

It’s interesting dealing with this, because gaining information for a news source from another news source is not something I have encountered yet as a journalist. Sources, for the most part, have been more than helpful concerning stories I’ve written in the past. I’m following a lead currently to Duke University, where Bill Green, the ombudsman for the Post who wrote the article concerning the Post and “Jimmey’s World,” stated he would go back to work after leaving the Post. Duke’s website conveyed that Green had worked in the Duke Institute for Learning in Retirement, yet no contact information was provided. Pexton stated that he believed Green was dead, but would research more on it for me.

All in all, the story is shaping up nicely, despite the current obstacles facing me. I’m hoping that more information will be provided by the Post in the near future so that this article can go to print soon. As far as Janet Cooke goes, all I can say is “wow.” What she did is brilliant in the most convoluted and wrong ways. She pieced together a story so heart wrenching that it sent the nation into a state of active pursuit for one young boy. She broke the cardinal rule of journalism: reporting the truth…and she almost didn’t get caught. Almost. You’ll have to read my article to understand the full story.

Janet Cooke, while I’m sure she was a great journalist in some respects, is probably better suited to novels or short stories, preferably fiction.

Our first scandalous journalist has been chosen

28 Sep

The first scandal in journalism has been chosen for my series. This journalist was one from the 1980’s, one that was before my time and that of many of my fellow students. Janet Cooke is her name and she was responsible for the fabricated story published in the Washington Post. Not only did Cooke fabricate a story that was published, she won a Pulitzer Prize for it. That’s all I’m going to tell you about Cooke for now, you’ll have to wait for the finished article to read the rest of her story and its implications for the field of journalism.

Choosing Cooke as the focus of the first article was the result of a long process of researching journalism scandals in history. While there were many to choose from, I noticed that many of them happened within the past decade. The amount of information on scandals dating back before the ’80s was disheartening to say the least. It became apparent that I would have to allow my project to branch into the 21st century to incorporate the more recent journalism scandals. However, these stories are being published in the Marist College newspaper, the Circle. While many readers of the Circle may be aware of the more recent stories, I wanted to give them something before their time. This was how I decided that the series would include two scandals from the ’80s, two from the ’90s and two or three from 2000-2010.

Cooke’s story is one that took place in 1981, therefore it made sense to start with her and go forwards from there. As of now I’m conducting background research into who she was and what her genre of news was. I plan to read some of her articles, including the infamous “Jimmy’s World.” I am also hoping to be able to contact the Washington Post for a direct comment, although I understand that I may hit a wall at that point, metaphorically speaking. I will tweet throughout this process to keep everyone updated on the progress of the story. I aim for it to be completed by Sunday, Oct. 2nd or Monday, Oct. 3rd. Keep logging in to keep up with the story!

Anyone with any information or input on the Janet Cooke scandal at the Washington Post can post your comment here or tweet it to @journscandals.