This week marks the 30th anniversary of one of journalism’s most embarrassing events: the publication of “Jimmy’s World,” a completely fabricated front-page story about a child junkie in Southeast Washington, D.C.
The Washington Post ran the article, written by reporter Janet Cooke, on Sept. 28, 1980. It began: “Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.”
“Jimmy’s World” won a Pulitzer Prize, which the paper ultimately had to return. Cooke had written fiction: no 8-year-old heroin addicts could be found in Washington’s poorest neighborhoods, despite an extensive search.
As Richard Prince wrote on Wednesday on the website of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, marking the anniversary:
Thirty years later, Cooke’s name is synonymous with the hoax she created. Her story is taught in journalism schools, and some say a portion of the damage she wreaked on the credibility of the news media remains.
Rarely mentioned in media discussions about fact-checking and editorial credulity, however, is the key reason that no one seemed to question “Jimmy’s World”: the fact that the story was about drugs and addicts. (More on Time.com: Addiction Files: Recovering From Drug Addiction, Without Abstinence)
As I’ve written before, the topic of illicit drug use has an “anti-skeptic” effect on the media. If the explanation for any statistic or phenomenon involves drugs, then you’re pretty much guaranteed that no editor will query it.
For example, by 1990, 10 years after Cooke’s article ran, the national media was filled with stories about IV drug use and the rise of AIDS. These articles repeated dangerous myths — most irresponsibly, that IV-drug users share needles because they like to do so and therefore would not respond to being given clean ones to reduce risk.
My very first article in a major publication appeared in the Village Voice that year, attempting to correct that misinformation from the perspective of a former heroin addict. It noted the fact that the media tended to see addicts as selfish monsters until it came to needle sharing, when all of a sudden we were all apparently into peace, love and charity:
The myth was that sharing was somehow part of the high — like passing a joint. But no one asked addicts why they share. The media was all too willing to point out negative attributes of drug users, but when it came to needles we were suddenly supposed to be generous.
In fact, I never saw needle sharing as a ritual and never heard of anyone who has. Needles are not meant to be reused. The second user gets a duller point. When you shoot someone else’s blood, you might get a highly unpleasant reaction — called a “bonecrusher” on the street.
The only person I’ve known who was eager to share was notorious for it — because no one else liked to do it. He was the poorest of the crowd of junkies I knew. He injected other people’s blood because he thought there might be dope left in it. (He later died of a cocaine overdose, leaving behind a pregnant, HIV-positive girlfriend.) [Full article reprinted here.]
Indeed, when research was done on needle-exchange programs, they proved to be a huge success: in New York City alone, they helped cut the infection rate among addicts from over 50% to less than 15%.
The media’s unquestioning credulity when it comes to drugs is the reason the Cooke story made it onto the front page. Anyone who knew anything at all about addiction would have dismissed it as fakery. For example, her article claimed that every day from age 5 to 8, Jimmy’s mother’s lover or “someone else” would “plunge a needle into his bony arm.” (More on Time.com: The Addiction Files: How Do We Define Recovery?)
Think about it: would poor addicts living in a shooting gallery really be likely to give expensive drugs — which they need themselves in order to avoid withdrawal — to a child every day for the weeks it would take to become addicted? And would any kid willingly agree to, let alone ask for, any kind of shot, as the Cooke story suggested — especially one that typically makes people vomit wretchedly the first time they do it?
Sociologists Craig Reinarman and Ceres Duskin did an extensive analysis of the issue in 1992, which, unfortunately, is not at all out of date. (You can read it in full here, and I highly recommend it.) Among other improbabilities in the Cooke piece, they pointed out:
There is nothing in the scientific literature to suggest that addicts recommend addiction to anyone, much less their own kids. The media apparently knew so little about heroin that they could simply assume it induced depravity and transformed users into the sort of vile subhumans who think nothing of doing such things. Clearly, heroin can be powerfully addicting but even if it were capable of morally lobotomizing all addicts, why would such addicts *give away* the very expensive stuff for which they reputedly lie, cheat and steal?
Reinarman and Duskin sum up:
[A]merica’s guardians of truth had no touchstone of truth on drug problems apart from their own scare stories. In this the Washington Post was no worse than most media institutions in the United States. When seen as part of the historical pattern of news “coverage” of drug issues, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fraud was less a “lapse” than part of a long tradition. On almost any other subject, editors’ “crap detectors” would have signaled that something was amiss.
Today’s media doesn’t do much better. Jack Shafer of Slate has made a sport of finding and unpacking a “Stupid Drug Story of the Week.” One of his favorite recent targets was the “pharm party,” a social function at which drug-seeking teens blindly choose unlabeled pills from a bowl, hoping that the one they get isn’t a lousy Tylenol.
Common sense should debunk this urban myth: if you want to get high and have good drugs, why would you risk getting someone else’s rejects? But the story comes up again and again, virtually always without anyone who has ever attended such a party being quoted directly.
And just this summer, the New York Times and other papers reported on a new practice, discovered in Africa, “so dangerous that it is almost unthinkable”: addicts sharing each others’ blood-filled needles, hoping to get high on drug remnants. The phenomenon was, according to the Times, “first described five years ago” in a medical journal — but as you can see from my 1990 Voice story cited above, it is not unique to Africa and has had various incarnations, probably since the first syringe was used to inject morphine in 1853.
So to readers: especially when you read about drugs, please think critically. Unfortunately, the media often doesn’t.
More on Time.com: