Picture: 123RF/Ruggiero Scardigno
Picture: 123RF/Ruggiero Scardigno

When it comes to how South Africans trust journalism and the media in SA, we have yet to see if we’ve thrown the bath water out with the 10 babies.

Piet Rampedi, Iqbal Survé and Independent Media’s foray into fecund fabulism is too recent to have had an effect on the results of the SA section of the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report for 2021, released on June 23. But it has certainly dealt the image of SA journalism a hefty blow in the world, and potentially domestically. When you’ve conned organisations such as the BBC into amplifying your fake news, you’ve made it big in the world of confidence tricksters.

The Digital News Report has been running for 10 years now, and it’s based on an online survey of 92,000 people in 46 media markets. This is representative of more than half the world’s population and in Africa it includes SA, Kenya and, for the first time this year, Nigeria.

The global results are an interesting snapshot of where the SA markets could be headed, as well as an interesting comparison with where we are now.

You do, however, need to do a lot of qualification. The sample groups are different and represent different types of digital audiences. In SA, for instance, the data is based on a survey of English-speaking online news users who "are generally more affluent, younger, have higher levels of formal education, and are more likely to live in cities than the wider SA population".

Still, the report can provide some valuable insights.

The first big takeaway is that trust in news is up in almost all countries. Regular readers of this column will have noticed me banging on about how important a trusted, trustworthy media is to the health of a democracy. It really is one of the pillars of freedom. Globally, trust in news has grown, on average, by six percentage points in the wake of the pandemic — 44% of people surveyed say they trust most news most of the time.

This is the start of a reversal of the downward trend we’ve seen over the past few years, a trend driven by the opportunistic use of the media as a scapegoat by politicians and others invested in diminishing its ability to hold them accountable for corruption and criminality.

Nic Newman, the report’s lead author, says the focus on factual reporting during the Covid crisis "may have made the news seem more straightforward, while the story has also had the effect of squeezing out more partisan political news. This may be a temporary effect, but in almost all countries we see audiences placing a greater premium on accurate and reliable news sources."

The trust gap between news and social media has grown, too, with only 24% saying they trust news in social media.

You won’t be too surprised to learn that Finland, as was the case last year, is the country with the highest levels of overall trust, at 65%.

What might surprise you, though, is that the US — on a list that includes some autocratic dictatorships dedicated to suppressing freedom of the press — has the lowest levels of trust, at 29%. We know whom the Americans have to thank for that, of course, and we’re also aware of the huge issues that are dividing that country, both for good reason and as part of misinformation campaigns by corrupt, self-serving individuals, parties and organisations. Let it serve as a cautionary tale about how much space we allow populists in which to drive divisions.

In SA, trust in media has grown, and we’re above the global average. Of those surveyed, 52% say they trust the news most of the time, a welcome four percentage points up from where we were in the 2020 report.

As the author of the SA report writes (disclosure: that author is me, on behalf of Code for Africa), "despite some high-profile editorial errors, and a concerted effort by agents of misinformation to attack media credibility, 2021 saw a growth in trust in news overall. It’s possible that the surfacing of the debate has educated users in understanding, and placing value on, the editorial integrity of trusted brands."

I do believe this to be true. There was such a backlash by media organisations to some truly bad journalism from within their/our ranks. These included the Jacques Pauw incident, the continuous blatant propaganda of Independent Media titles, the amplification of conspiracy theories by eNCA, and other examples.

Independent Media’s foray into fecund fabulism has dealt the image of SA journalism a hefty blow in the world

This backlash, and transparent engagement with the issues, meant readers were educated on what proper, professional journalism actually is.

When you read research on what news organisations need to do to keep their audiences, one thing often mentioned is that readers don’t actually know how journalism works. They have very little sight of the robust checks and balances that credible news organisations have in place, which means they judge all news by its lowest forms.

When news organisations highlight the bad practices of those media practitioners that deviate from the rigorous norm, they are also showcasing their own best practice. A lot more work needs to be put into understanding this, however. eNCA, despite its dalliance with the lizard people on one of its talk shows, is still trusted by 82% of respondents.

And trust is important for many reasons. In a number of countries surveyed, "especially those with strong and independent public service media, the [Reuters] report also documents greater consumption of trusted news brands. The pattern is less clear outside Western Europe, in countries where the [coronavirus] crisis has dominated the media agenda less, or where other political and social issues have played a bigger role."

In SA, 57% of people trust news brands that they use frequently, vs the 54% that trust news in general. Our most trusted news brands are the BBC and News24, at a whopping 83%, with only 7% and 8% of people respectively saying they don’t trust them at all. As already mentioned, eNCA is a close third at 82%, followed by SABC News (78%), Sunday Times (76%) and Mail & Guardian (75%).

If you’d like to see the full list, you can download the report on the Reuters Institute website, but it’s worth noting that brand trust can also have a lot to do with extended familiarity with that brand. The Daily Maverick, a publication that continuously produces important, excellent journalism, is at 12th position out of the 15 brands surveyed, with a trust score of 66%, and with a very high percentage of respondents (23%) saying they neither trust nor distrust the site.

Concern about misinformation remains high globally, with 58% of people expressing concern about what is true or false on the internet when it comes to news. This number is much higher for African countries surveyed, with an average of 74% concerned about misinformation.

Who people are concerned about when it comes to spreading misinformation about Covid is also revealing. The global figures show that 29% are most concerned about politicians, 16% about ordinary people, 15% about activists, 11% about journalists spreading false information, and 9% about foreign governments.

Across all markets, only 25% prefer to start their news journeys with a website or app. Those aged 18 to 24 have an even weaker connection to traditional news sites and are almost twice as likely to prefer to access news via social media, aggregators or mobile alerts.

Facebook has become significantly less relevant for news in the past year, while WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok, and Telegram have continued to attract more users, especially among the young.

In SA, the number of people who access news online (including on social media) is at 91%, marginally up from 2019’s 90%. Those who read their news in print has dropped from 40% in 2019 to 32% in 2021.

TV has grown from 68% to 74%, a growth that’s echoed across a number of European countries, where the report found that "consumption of television news is significantly higher than a year ago when no restrictions on movement were in place. This is not surprising, given that so many people have been stuck at home, but has reaffirmed the importance of a medium that is accessible, easy to consume, reaches a wide range of demographics, and is mostly well trusted."

There’s also yet another warning sign about loss of audience for traditional journalists, with the report showing how influencers play a much bigger role in TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram than in older networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

"Journalists have traditionally led the conversation in news-focused Twitter, but struggle to attract attention in these newer networks compared with celebrities and other personalities," the report notes.

In a sense, the seismic shift from print to online that so irreparably disrupted the journalism model is being echoed by a shift from old-school social media to new, more youth-driven platforms.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out across categories of trust and consumption, and whether we’re going to see more stories about miracle births from news organisations desperate to stay alive in challenging time.

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