Friday, October 01, 2010

How a Copy Editor Might Have Averted Disaster

By Laurie Phillips

Had things happened differently, we may never have learned Janet Cooke's name. Fact is, we do know who she is, because on Sept. 28,1980, The Washington Post ran a front-page story she wrote about an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy.

The words she wrote -- more than 2,000 of them -- were compelling reading, so much so that they garnered the attention of the committee that awards Pulitzer prizes. According to a 28-page ombudsman's report written by Bill Green for The Washington Post, Cooke received a phone call from her editors on April 3, 1981, informing her that she had won a Pulitzer for her story. On April 14, less than a day after the awards were publicly announced, the report says, Cooke confirmed to her editors what they suspected was true, and agreed that she wouldn't accept the prize.

Jimmy never existed.

How is it that the story got past the sharp eyes of copy editors and made it to print? That's the question posed by William G. Connolly, a former senior editor at The New York Times who developed a comprehensive policy on ethics and conflicts of interest for the paper's news department.

"It is a cautionary tale for all newspaper editors, especially copy editors," Connolly said.

Eighty people, during two sessions at the ACES national conference in Long Beach, were invited to examine Cooke's story as it appeared in print and discuss the problems they found in it.

Participants found that quite a few elements of the story did not make sense:
  • Why didn't any of Jimmy's teachers notice the heroin tracks "freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms"?
  • Why would someone shoot up the boy, knowing he couldn't pay for his habit himself?
  • Could Jimmy really be an 8-year-old fourth grader, considering his truancy from school?
  • Why does his mother's English seem to fluctuate between "street speak" and proper English – within the same sentence?
  • And why would someone let a reporter watch him get a child high?

"It seems to me," Connolly said, "that there is little that's impossible here, but there's a lot that's implausible."

Where were the copy editors to ask these questions?

The ombudsman's report suggests that the sharp level of skepticism with which editors are taught to approach stories may have been dulled in Cooke's case.

Her editors had asked Cooke to reveal neither Jimmy's nor his mother's identities. The report says that the dozens of stories she submitted before "Jimmy's World" were lauded by her supervisors.

Editors may have more readily believed the story because Cooke had black skin, a fact that may have gotten her more access to such a story than white reporters would find. A reporter's track record of turning in accurate, brilliantly written stories shouldn't mean his or her newest one will be flawless, Green's report says. And Connolly said the process by which the story was printed is not essential to know.

What is worth considering is that all an editor – regardless of his or her level of experience – needs to see is the copy itself. Anyone able to think critically should be able to see the conflicts and contradictions presented in Cooke's story, Connolly said.

Consider what would have happened, Connolly said, had things been done differently. Perhaps Cooke's piece would have been held, for a day, while she "checked out" some of the discrepancies. Perhaps she would have had trouble finding Jimmy, and would, therefore, be unable to ensure her "facts" were right.

Perhaps she would have gotten another assignment, effectively sending Jimmy's story to the back of a drawer, where it would have gotten buried and forgotten.

Perhaps disaster could have been averted.

Editors are there to be skeptics. Acutely aware of, as Connolly said, things that "do not compute." They must see the forest and the trees, watching that both the details and the bigger picture make sense.

"They should think about how critical it is that they be good at what they do and pay attention to it," Connolly said in an interview before the conference. "Copy editing can save the world if it's done well enough."


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