Yo Zushi, fact-checking the New Statesman. Photo: New Statesman
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Please check your facts: a New Statesman sub-editor speaks out

False or misleading reporting is nothing new, but in the digital age, errors spread fast - and are harder to debunk.

On a single day in May this year, ten people were shot in the US city of Baltimore. Non-fatal shootings had climbed year on year by almost 50 per cent and the homicide rate was up by a fifth. “Charm City” – as the metropolis’s marketing team once named it – had become the bloodstained “Bodymore” made familiar by the HBO series The Wire.

It was in such a climate, with nerves on edge after the death of the 25-year-old Freddie Gray while under arrest in the city a few weeks earlier, that Fox News reported news of the latest shooting of a “black man” by armed police.

The channel claimed that the incident, on 4 May, had been witnessed by the news company’s own broadcast crew. It quickly transpired, however, that the story was baloney – and had likely been based on a misinterpretation of tweets sent out by the Baltimore Police Department. No one at the scene was dead. The local police hadn’t fired a single bullet.

As a sub-editor for this magazine, I spend much of my time checking facts. My colleagues and I attempt to corroborate every name, every date and every assertion before publication. Slips occur, but the New Statesman does its best to minimise errors by devoting considerable time and effort to its editorial processes. Each piece in the issue you are holding has been read by at least four people. Reliable content is one reason why readers trust magazines such as the NS. Here, a misread tweet would not have been deemed sufficient evidence to anchor a leading story. And, we would hope, an error of such magnitude would have been weeded out before being allowed to contaminate the public discourse.

And yet the culture of fact-checking has long been under threat. All too often it is deemed incompatible with today’s rapid-fire (and increasingly web-based), 24-hour journalism. “Sub-editors worst hit in London Evening Standard cuts”, said one headline back in 2009 as the newspaper began culling production staff. Variations have since become commonplace in the press.

When Peter Oborne announced his resignation from the Telegraph in February, the paper’s former chief political commentator bemoaned – among other grievous ethical breaches – the constriction of “subs”, without whom, “as all reporters are aware, no newspaper can operate”. Slipping standards, he wrote, “coincided with the arrival of click culture”.

The internet undoubtedly has democratised information, as its heavy use by protesters under repressive regimes in countries such as Egypt and Iran attests. But was MIT’s David Thorburn right to wonder in 2007 whether old-style journalism’s “successors in cyberspace” would come to their profession with the same “sense of mission” as the old guard?

Craig Silverman, founder of the “rumour-tracking” website, has warned of online businesses posing as legitimate news outlets that “pump out hoax content with the goal of generating shares and links”. In an article for the news aggregator Digg, he took as an example a viral story of a “priest who met a female god in his near-death experience”. That yarn, published by the online World News Daily Report, was bogus but it spread quickly across social media and, after being taken at face value by Uganda’s Daily Monitor, eventually made it into the mainstream western media when a CBS radio station in Dallas blogged about it and the Metro reported it for the benefit of gullible Londoners.

From the “Twitter Thanksgiving airplane feud” to the allegation that US Democrats increased federal income-tax rates last year under Obamacare, much of what passes as true online is later shown to be merely “truthy”: it sounds credible but isn’t credible at all.

That such stories can infiltrate the supposedly authoritative media is alarming. In December 2013, Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post, told the New York Times: “If you throw something up without fact-checking it and you’re the first one to put it up and you get millions and millions of views and later it’s proved false, you still got those views.” He conceded that this was “a problem” and that “the incentives are all wrong” – yet his Pulitzer-winning website has posted several made-up viral stories, including the dumb “airplane feud” of November 2013.

False or misleading reporting is nothing new, as Dominic Ponsford, the editor of Press Gazette, reminds me. “It’s always been an issue. Even before digital, stories with false information used to get into the media and be endlessly repeated.” In the past, errors preserved in cuttings libraries would be searched out and held up as corroboration.

“What has changed is the speed,” Ponsford notes. “False stories spread faster, but they’re corrected much faster.” Still, it’s hard to beat click culture’s thirst for sensation. Silverman pointed out that while debunkings of the female God story had attracted “roughly 2,000 shares and interactions . . . the articles that treat it as true now top 160,000”.

Where a blog, relied on to be immediately responsive and subjective, may be forgiven for running on a combustible mix of social media and skim-read information, such laxness is unacceptable in mainstream news, as Fox’s Baltimore blunder demonstrates. Facts matter, even in the era of 24-hour news. We should keep checking them.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor with the New Statesman

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.