Sunday, February 20, 2011

Case Study 7: Jimmy's World

The Jimmy World’s story by Janet Cooke is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. It’s captivating and hard to escape after reading the first paragraph because your natural curiosity is to keep reading to find out how an 8-year-old deals with heroin addiction. From his lavish outfit to his street smarts, we are amazed to see that Jimmy may be an 8-year-old, but is far beyond his time because he’s seen so much. With his love for math and vision of a successful future, we think he has his priorities as straight as they can be coming from a home of a drug dealer. And even as things in the story seem not to make sense, it’s easy to accept them for the truth because after all, not all of us live this lifestyle and can say we know this is really going on.

Too bad it was all fiction.

It’s hard to conceive how Jimmy is wearing “fancy running shoes” and has six striped Izod shirts living in a rough, Washington D.C., neighborhood. It’s hard to see countless numbers of people walking in and out of the home Jimmy lives in to get their hits to ease the pain, or even how a young teenage couple comes over to cook their own supply. A real drug dealer would never let anyone into his or her sanctuary to do such a thing.  It’s hard to believe how Jimmy goes to school and his favorite subject is math, and how his drug habit goes unnoticed by the others at school. And with that habit comes something I simply cannot fathom: how does his mother accept his drug habit, and how does she allow her “live-in-lover” to inject him with heroin?

Despite the discrepancies, it’s easy to see with such a well-written piece could get past the psyches of several editors on the job, and even a promotion from the great Bob Woodward. But the urgency to run the story without having someone else to verify all the “facts”, and not listening to veteran editor Vivian Aplin-Brownlee when she shared her concern was a big mistake put the Post in hot water. Aplin-Brownlee knew the type of writing and reporting Cooke was capable of, and most of all, she knew what type of person Cooke was. Cooke even lied to the Pulitzer board about her college education. She knew Cooke’s ambitious personality was capable of committing such a journalistic crime and in the end, Aplin-Brownlee was right.

I think as a copy-editor, it’s not only important to be conscious of what you are reading, but also whose work you are reading, too. Aplin-Brownlee recognition of Jimmy’s World as a unique piece from Cooke triggered her intuition and this is something all copy-editors should walk away with — know your writers. By knowing the personalities and styles of the ones you edit the most, it becomes easier to question the validity of their work. And in turn if they get to know you, working together becomes easier and does not create any confrontation when the number one goal should be producing flawless pieces for the publication.  

In addition, being naturally curious is just as important. Copy-editing is not only about making sure stories are factual and easy-to-read, but to ensure they are valid and truly make sense.  As copy-editors, don’t be afraid to dig deeper. Find out how Jimmy is wearing “fancy running shoes” and how he’s doing in school, or better yet, what school he goes to.  Question how it’s conceivable for a mother to allow her 8-year-old son to be addicted to heroin and even question on what it was really like seeing Jimmy get injected first-hand.

Even as copy-editors, we shouldn’t be afraid to do a little dirty work.

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