Picture: 123RF/olegdudko
Picture: 123RF/olegdudko

Consumers of news — readers and viewers, as they used to be called — often question why news organisations are willing to publish palpably false statements from politicians. Or at least they question it on social media, and it’s often because it’s a statement or politician that a reader will personally have an issue with. EFF leader Julius Malema has been the poster child in this regard in the past, but he’s been sadly mute the past few weeks.

In my past life as an editor I took criticism for publishing columns by people who were either rampant populists or dodgy politicians, and there was never a blanket rationale of access to information that sat comfortably with everyone.

That argument — that people should be given as much information as possible, even the lies, so as to make their decisions more informed — is relatively easy to make when it’s information that functions as data rather than diktat. It’s not so easy to make in the current revolutionary moment of Black Lives Matter protests, where a false statement by someone like US President Donald Trump can result in violence and death.

Or, indeed, in the face of Covid-19, when people could actually die from taking some of Trump’s advice.

This is why it’s so important that Twitter is willing to flag a Trump tweet with a disclaimer saying: "This tweet violated the Twitter rules about glorifying violence."

Less encouraging, perhaps, is the bit that says: "Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the tweet to remain accessible."

This is also why Facebook’s vacillation about doing something similar is, to put it mildly, a problem.

The "Digital News Report 2020" from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Oxford University, released on June 16, included the question: "What should the media do with statements from politicians that could be false?"

The report covers 40 countries and includes two from Africa: SA and, for the first time, Kenya. It’s interesting to see how SA and Kenya stack up against the rest of the world in some of the important categories, and it is revealing about the state of news in both those countries. (Disclosure: Code for Africa, the organisation I work for, is a report partner of Reuters Oxford.)

In almost every market surveyed people said that in such cases they would prefer the media to "report the statement prominently because it is important for the public to know what the politician said" rather than "not emphasise the statement because it would give the politician unwarranted attention".

SA featured high on this list, with almost 75% of South Africans preferring to know about potentially false statements from politicians. Interestingly, this was the reverse when it came to the question "What should platforms do with political adverts containing information that could be false?" There, almost 70% of South Africans said the platforms should "block the advertisement because technology companies should be responsible for making sure information on their platform is true".

According to Reuters, and "somewhat unusually", the organisation generally "[finds] clear answers to these questions — both across countries and across different demographic groups".

It says: "Most people think journalists should report false statements from politicians even if it gives them unwarranted attention, and most people think that platforms should block political adverts that contain inaccuracies even if it ultimately means the platforms become the arbiters of truth."

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, except that it might indicate that misinformation on news platforms can be viewed in relation to trust in the media. Perhaps consumers of a particular news brand believe their fellow readers have the wherewithal to critically analyse false statements by politicians, but that this isn’t the case for the haphazard market that is social media. That’s probably just wishful thinking, though.

According to Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, "as the coronavirus hit, we observed overall levels of trust in the news at their lowest point since we started to track this data. In a direct comparison with 2019 we find that fewer than four in 10 (38%) say they trust most news most of the time — down four percentage points. Less than half (46%) say they trust the news that they themselves use."

Kenya (at 50%) and SA (at 48%) are relatively high, at positions six and seven, on the list of 40 countries in terms of trusting the news all of the time.

Finland (56%) is at No 1, and the US (29%) and UK (28%) are down at positions 31 and 34 respectively. In 2019 SA was in eighth position, with a 49% trust in news.

There are other interesting indicators where SA and Kenya feature high on the list. I’m emphasising our positions vis-à-vis the other 38 countries because it seems to indicate a specific type of media literacy, and a particular kind of media environment, that speaks to the way we consume news and how we trust (or mistrust) politicians.

This is not to say that Kenya and SA are similar markets; just that, for whatever reasons, we are often neck and neck when it comes to some of the categories surveyed.

For instance, in the very important question of what proportion of our online population is "concerned about what is real and what is fake on the internet when it comes to news", Kenya (76%) is at joint No 2, and SA follows, with 72%. (If you’re interested, the Dutch, at 32%, are the least concerned about being able to tell real from fake on the internet.)

Last year SA was also at No 3, at 70%. So our worries aren’t getting any better, despite — or perhaps because of — the ramped-up fight against misinformation by various fact-checking organisations.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it could indicate a growing awareness, rather than unmoored despair.

Also encouraging, despite all the fake news and misinformation that the contrarian clowns in both countries seem intent on disseminating, the proportion of Kenyans and South Africans who think climate change is very or extremely serious is exceptionally high.

Kenya (at 90%) is at joint No 1 position with Chile, and SA (87%) shares the next position with Turkey. That’s something to be impressed by. Weirdly, the Dutch (at 24%) are last in this category as well. Either they’ve been lulled into a remarkable overconfidence by the historical efficiency of their dykes, or they’re just not very good at filling out surveys.

The Reuters report also ranks most-trusted brands, and in SA — as it was in 2019 — the most trusted news brand is News24, at 85%.

Kenya’s most trusted news brand is KTN News, at 90%, but the next four brands (Citizen TV, NTV, Daily Nation and The Standard) all sit at 89%, so there’s no major player that stands out.

Different people will analyse these results in different ways, but one conclusion is that South Africans and Kenyans seem to still be actively involved in the consumption and dissemination of news, which can only be a good thing for our democracies, and indeed for the news industry.

The 2020 report indicates that, "looking to the future, publishers are increasingly recognising that long-term survival is likely to involve stronger and deeper connection with audiences online".

As report co-editor Rasmus Nielsen says: "We see clear evidence that distinct, premium news publishers are able to convince a growing number of people to pay for quality news online. But most people are not paying for online news, and given the abundance of freely available alternatives, it is not clear why they would. In such a competitive market, only truly outstanding journalism can convince people to pay."

And that, with the caveat that we’re still dealing with an industry in crisis, is what’s encouraging about how the Kenyans and South Africans who were surveyed appear to have situated themselves in the news ecosystem — as literate, engaged consumers who are savvy about news.

  • The Reuters Institute 2020 Digital News Report is available at digitalnewsreport.org. The Africa launch of the 2020 report will take place on June 24, on Zoom