Picture: Johnny Miller/Code for Africa
Picture: Johnny Miller/Code for Africa

With teams in 21 countries and major offices in Cape Town, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Lagos, Code for Africa (CfA) is the continent’s largest network of civic technology and data journalism labs. Deputy CEO Chris Roper will be taking part in Wan-Ifra’s virtual digital media Africa conference on July 6-7 in a session dedicated to exploring the level of trust in journalism after one year of the pandemic.

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021, the reach and subscriber numbers of several news brands as well trust in them have increased as the public searched for reliable information about the coronavirus pandemic.

This year’s report features three African countries: Kenya, SA, and Nigeria (which wasn’t included last year). Both Kenya and SA recorded higher levels of trust in news overall than in the 2020 report – 11 and 4 percentage points up respectively. Deputy director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Meera Selva will discuss the report’s findings in more detail during the Digital media Africa conference.

In Kenya, 61% of respondents say they trust the news most of the time; in SA it’s 52% and in Nigeria 54%. This puts them all above the global average of 44%. (CfA collaborated on the Nigerian and SA sections of the report).

However, “concerns about misinformation are high on the continent”, says Roper, adding that in the countries surveyed, an average of 74% of respondents are worried about misinformation, compared with the global figure of 58%. “In SA we’ve also been hit by some high-profile journalism blunders, which might affect trust in the media in future. In addition there are the usual bad actors who are invested in destroying trust in the media for their own corrupt ends.”

Ahead of Roper’s appearance at Digital media Africa, Wan-Ifra asked him about the work he’s doing with CfA and what steps news organisations can take to improve trust.

Please would you give a brief overview of CfA.

Chris Roper: CfA builds digital democracy solutions that give citizens unfettered access to information they can act on, empowers them to make informed decisions and strengthens civic engagement for improved public governance and accountability. This includes building infrastructure like the continent’s largest open data portals at openAfrica and sourceAfrica as well as incubating initiatives as diverse as the africanDrone network, the PesaCheck fact-checking initiative and the sensors.Africa air quality sensor network.

CfA also manages the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting, which gives the continent’s best muckraking newsrooms the best possible forensic data tools, digital security and whistleblower encryption to help improve their ability to tackle crooked politicians, organised crime and predatory big business. CfA runs academy.Africa, one of Africa’s largest skills development initiatives for digital journalists, and provides seed funds for cross-border collaboration.

In your opinion, what are some of the initiatives that have had the most impact?

From 2019 onwards we’ve been running an initiative called Mapping Makoko. Home to more than 300,000 people, Makoko is a slum in Lagos that is completely waterlogged, with most houses on stilts and accessible only via canoe. Until recently data about Makoko was hazy, because the community was almost completely unmapped. Working with local and international partners – from the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting to africanDrone and local NGO Makoko Dream – CfA trained locals to map their settlement using drones and canoes and to publish the data on open-source mapping platforms. To date the project has mapped dozens of points of interest, from schools and clinics to safe water sources, and has been featured in The Guardian Nigeria, in AFP and on  Al Jazeera. Mapping Makoko has also won a Fetisov Journalism Award, and was the first African project to win a Sigma Award.

What impact has the pandemic had on CfA, and what were some of the major changes or challenges in the past year or so?

As CfA is already an organisation that is spread across the continent, the structural impact wasn’t as huge as for other organisations. But the major challenge, especially given the work we do, is responding to the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation about Covid. In the early days of the pandemic our partners at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, (CfA incubates its sub-Saharan Africa team) exposed a co-ordinated misinformation campaign of dozens of Facebook groups that were created to spread disinformation and stoke fear around the virus, so that bad actors could sell personal protective equipment. This investigation prompted a Facebook takedown of the groups and pages that were responsible for it.

Our in-house fact-checking team, PesaCheck, grew its footprint to become Africa’s largest fact-checker, and produced a staggering 274 Covid-related fact-checks. PesaCheck also became a founding member of the World Health Organisation’s Africa Infodemic Response Alliance.

What advice do you have for news organisations trying to regain or maintain the public’s trust?

It’s back to basics, in some ways. We need to push back against the domination of the news cycle by social media platforms and focus on the kind of journalism that social media isn’t good at. The investigative, deep-dive stuff, for example. But at the same time we need to continue on the path of understanding what audiences want, and, indeed, what actually constitutes an audience.

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