Deputy CEO, Code for Africa
There is a strong tradition of highly trusted, independent media in South Africa, but this is increasingly under threat. Trust is being eroded by a combination of unethical business practices, shoddy journalism, and escalating misinformation affecting critical national elections.
South Africa scores highly on the press freedom index, and largely enjoys a strong and ethical news environment. This is reflected in a 49% trust in media, one of the highest in our survey, perhaps bolstered by the media’s recent role in exposing political patronage at the highest levels. News24, The Daily Maverick, and the amaBhungane Center for Investigative Journalism were three outlets that helped uncover the corrupt relationship between former president Jacob Zuma and the Guptas, a family implicated in the process that South Africans are terming ‘state capture’. In the wake of the scandal, two major news outlets that were owned by the Guptas, The New Age newspaper and the 24hr TV news station Afrotone (formerly ANN7), were forced to close for political and economic reasons.
Meanwhile Independent Media, one of the country’s largest media groups, has had the integrity of its news products severely compromised by its owner’s interference in editorial policy, as well as its inability to pay back a questionably acquired loan of over R1bn to SA’s Public Investment Corporation.1 The company has undergone several rounds of retrenchments, with a consequent decline in editorial standards.
The Sunday Times weekly newspaper, long one of the country’s most trusted news brands, was forced to apologise for lapses in journalistic rigour and the publication of several false scoops, and had some of its journalism awards withdrawn.2 Despite this, it still sits at number six on the list of trusted news brands, but as with some of the Independent titles, it appears to be burning through a reservoir of legacy trust established over many years. It remains to be seen if the appointment of a new editor will help.
In the run-up to the general election in May, misinformation on social media exploded, with news brands becoming both targets as well as sometimes unwitting amplifiers. There has been a surge in organisations training media and civil society to combat misinformation, and platforms such as Google and Twitter also allocated resources to help. Meanwhile the Independent Electoral Commission partnered with the NGO Media Monitoring Africa to produce a system for reporting misinformation. The battle against misinformation is made more difficult by South Africans’ high usage of WhatsApp (88% for general purposes, and a high 49% for news among our online sample).
The state broadcaster, the SABC, is only the fourth most-trusted brand, perhaps a result of a protracted and damaging period of government interference and near-catastrophic financial mismanagement.3 On the positive side, it appears to be turning a corner with the appointment of a new, relatively apolitical board. The organisation still enjoys a high level of use for its multilingual television news programming (50%) and for its radio news (29%). Online, the SABC website also does well (45%) just behind the hugely popular News24 (70%), a digital-born early entrant into the market which aggregates content from a number of print brands such as City Press.
Revenue for news media has been plummeting for several years now, with a 12% drop in ad spend last year for television, 5.6% for radio, and 7.7% for print.4 Despite 16% of respondents claiming they pay for online news, this figure will not be representative of South Africans as a whole given our urban and highly educated online sample. Indeed, most of the local news organisations with subscription paywalls decline to release their figures, suggesting the number of paying subscribers is still low. The surge of goodwill engendered by the media’s role in exposing the Guptas has led to an upswing in reader donations to independent publications like the Daily Maverick and the investigative unit amaBhungane. But this is an uncertain form of income, and with no sustainable revenue model available, South African media houses are facing a grim future.
The big social media platforms have effectively won the battle for advertising revenue while resource-starved online and broadcast news brands face fierce competition from international English-speaking brands like the BBC and CNN. Over the last ten years, newspaper circulation has declined by 49%,5 and the majority of media houses seem to have no idea how to roll out successful hybrid subscriptions models that have worked elsewhere in the world.
South African media has a strong reputation for independence but political and business interference is an increasing concern. The website News24 has built credibility on the back of investments in breaking news. Tabloid newspaper the Daily Sun is widely used but less well trusted.
- Jackie Cameron, ‘Iqbal Survé, Specialist in Media Capture AND State Capture’, BizNews, 15 Apr. 2019. https://www.biznews.com/undictated/2019/04/15/media-capture-iqbal-surve ↩
- https://ewn.co.za/2018/10/14/sunday-times-apologises-for-tainted-scoops ↩
- Riaan Grobler, ‘Motsoeneng’s “reckless mismanagement” caused SABC’s problems – Sanef’, News24, 17 Sept. 2018. https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/motsoenengs-reckless-mismanagement-caused-sabcs-problems-sanef-20180917 ↩
- https://themediaonline.co.za/2018/03/gloomy-picture-for-tv-and-radio-advertising-spend-in-sa ↩
- Compiled by iSizwe Distributors from official data. ↩