Disinformation risks for the South African media market

Disinformation risks for the South African media market

  • January 29, 2020

By Chris Roper, Code for Africa

South African media is in a crisis of trust with only 40 percent of people in the country saying they trust the media.  Disinformation has played a role in this. Findings for the South African media market from the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) show that latent and pervasive disinformation risks need to be addressed when it comes to some of South Africa’s top media sites (see Figure 1). 

This problem is largely rooted in the lack of operational checks-and-balances that are required to prevent disinformation from slipping into stories and being spread.

The GDI ratings – where “100” is the best score and “0” the worst – show a South African media market that generally has some medium-degree of disinformation risks due largely to these operational challenges. Each site’s rating is based on a composite score across various disinformation risks which are part of the GDI risk rating methodology.

Figure 2: Distribution of Risk Ratings – by Site (anonymised)

Operational safeguards include publishing information on the owners of the site and its sources of revenue as well as having statements on editorial independence and correcting errors. All these measures have been flagged as part of the Journalism Trust Initiative standard which journalists themselves have designed and adopted in order to build a trusted media.

When it comes to the lack of policies, it is the fault of the news organisations alone. Very few of the sites reviewed have an editorial independence policy available on their domain. This policy is the minimum requirement for transparency in an age where accusations of media bias are one of the defining tropes of fringe groups and mainstream bodies seeking to minimise the effectiveness of investigative reporting. GDI’s review found that only five sites out of the sample of 30 met this standard in South Africa.

A majority of domains also lack guidelines for when and how they issue corrections to their stories, and the poor design of many of those who do have those guidelines does not make it easy for readers to find editorial policies.

Every domain surveyed lacks a policy on the publication of algorithmically-generated content.  Such a policy is becoming essential in a world where AI is used to produce news – as well as to manipulate content (like videos).

However, the market does do well on disclosures of ownership and funding sources, with a majority of domains scoring a full ‘100’ on both indicators.

Another challenge facing the South African news sites is the prevalent use of clickbait headlines. We live in an online world where eye-catching headlines are used to drive clicks to get online ad revenues for sites. In this universe, disinformation is given oxygen to spread. The  imperative to generate online ad revenue through more clicks is needed to finance journalism, and newsrooms will be all too aware of this reality. But the South African advertising industry also needs to take a hard look at how it is supporting quality, low-risk news sites. A trusted and free press is one of the essential pillars of our democracy. And yet recent findings suggest that 70% of those surveyed in South Africa are worried about being able to tell the difference between real news and fake news.

The GDI’s report is a pilot, and its findings for each of the sites will be updated and published in the coming months. For now, each of the site’s scores have been shared with the sites in order to discuss them and get their feedback.

The GDI risk ratings for South Africa and other countries are aimed at advertisers to help them make well-based and informed decisions about their online ad spend on all different types of news sites.

Yet the findings also are a critical window into sites that can be used by them to ensure that they are minimising their risk exposure to disinformation through key measures to ensure reliable content, operational integrity and brand trust.

As South African media sites attempt to address the low confidence in them, these findings provide an important road map of what steps to take.

Click here for the full research findings.

(Disclosure: Chris Roper is deputy director at Code for Africa, which was part of the research team for the GDI’s risk assessment of the South African Media Market.)

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