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