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 emergent.info, 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 contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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

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My son is shivering – precisely the response you want from a boy newly excited by drama

I can only assume theatre is in his blood, but not from my side of the family.

I went to the National Theatre last week to see, not a full production, but a reading of a play – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, directed by, and starring, the writer himself. The pre-publicity described the play as a “big, bold and riotous look at gender, drag and fabulousness”, in which “the House of Light competes with the House of Diabolique for drag family supremacy at the Cinderella Ball”. It lived up to this thrilling billing, transcending the modest expectations of a “read-through” and bursting into vivid life on the stage. The audience, less subdued, less thoroughly straight and white than a standard West End theatre crowd, rose to the occasion, whooping their approval and leaping to their feet at the end in a genuinely rousing and moved ovation.

It was a great evening, and came hot on the heels of another success only two weeks ago, when Ben and I took our youngest to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The boy is only 16, and freshly into drama, so it felt risky taking him to a new play. But we needn’t have worried. The piece is visceral and physical, set in County Armagh in 1981; against the backdrop of the hunger strikes, it tells a story of the long reach of the IRA, and even though the boy needs some of the history explaining to him, when I turn to him at the end of the final, shocking scene, he says: “I am actually shivering.” Which is presumably the precise response you would want to get out of a 16-year-old boy, poised on the brink of being excited about drama.

But theatre isn’t always exciting, is it? Let’s be honest. Ben and I have slunk out of too many intervals, bored witless by something flat and stagey, so I chalk these two latest experiences up as something of a triumph.

I didn’t even know the boy was so into theatre until I saw him on stage this year in a school production of Enron. He only had a small part, but still had to come to the very front of the stage, alone in a spotlight, and deliver a monologue in a Texan accent. And seeing him out of context like this, I nearly fell off my seat with the jolt of dislocation, almost not recognising him as my own son. Who knew he could do a Texan accent? (He’d practised for hours in the bathroom, he told me later.) And when did he get so tall? And so handsome? I see him every day and yet all I could think, seeing him up there on stage, was: “Who on earth IS this lanky six footer with the Hollywood smile, making eye contact and connecting with the audience in a way I never could in 20 years of gigs?”

I can only assume it is in his blood, and has come from Ben’s side of the family. Ben was studying drama at Hull when I met him; indeed the first time I saw him with his clothes off was on stage, in a production of The Winter’s Tale where the director, somewhat sadistically I thought, lined up a chorus of young men to be dancing satyrs, and made them strip down to nothing but giant codpieces. We’d only just started dating, so it was quite the introduction to my new boyfriend’s body.

Theatre was in his blood, too, inherited from his mother, and he was always confident on stage, enjoying the presence and feedback of an audience, which is why he still plays live and I don’t. His mother had been an actress, performing with John Gielgud and co at the Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon, until her career was cut short by having a child, and then triplets. At her funeral a couple of years ago we listened to a recording of her RADA audition from the 1940s, in which she performed one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, her cut-glass English tones, declamatory and dramatic, in many ways every bit as fabulous and flamboyant as the drag queens in Wig Out!, whose theatricality she would have adored. She loved the stage, and she loved fame, and when it couldn’t be hers she revelled instead in mine and Ben’s, keeping every press cutting, wearing all the T-shirts, coming to every back-stage party. If it couldn’t be the spotlight, then the wings would do, darling.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder