How Journalists Talk About Ethics
If there is a word for bad journalism in America, and you look it up in the encyclopedia, and there's Janet Cooke's picture.
-- Ted Koppel, ABC Nightline, May 10, 1996
Ted Koppel is surely right, but his remark raises an interesting question: With so many Great Moments in Bad Journalism to choose from (not to mention all of the Enduring Disgraces), ranging from the O. J. Simpson media circus to the perennial horse-race coverage of presidential elections and the virtual news blackout on such important (but dull) public issues as the 1996 Telecommunications Act, how did this young black woman manage to capture this distinction? Did she really earn it or could affirmative action be involved? Or might the notoriousness of the Cooke case be an example of what's wrong with the way journalists think about ethics?
In 1981, Janet Cooke, a reporter for the Washington Post, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a dramatic news story titled "Jimmy's World," purportedly the account of the life of an eight-year-old drug addict. Jimmy was later revealed to be a fictional composite character, the prize was withdrawn, and Cooke resigned in disgrace.
The Janet Cooke scandal has become, quite literally, the textbook example of journalistic misconduct. Virtually every book on media ethics pub