Code for Africa has conducted research on the impact of editorial policy in tackling media capture, the report highlights the importance of an editorial policy within newsrooms and how these policies uphold journalistic ethics and ensure transparency. Code for Africa partnered with the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) to launch the report, which was followed by a panel discussion with Qaanitah Hunter, deputy editor for politics and opinion at News24, Phathiswa Magopeni, chief operations officer at the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism and Chris Roper, deputy CEO at Code for Africa.

The report was conducted in three countries, Kenya, South Africa and Zambia, and focuses on eleven themes, each of which explains how the media can be or are vulnerable to, media capture. “Less than half of the newsrooms we sampled disclosed their ownership and management structures on their websites. Of the 30 newsrooms we sampled, we found that only nine were transparent about their ownership, editors and board members, and their contributions to the newsroom,” said Amanda Strydom, senior programme manager for CivicSignal at Code for Africa.

For example, a major South African news organisation is owned by a Chinese company (25%), which they declare on their website, but the stories produced by this news organisation are pro-China with a clear agenda and the stories do not clearly state that the content is sponsored,” said Strydom. “Editorial policies need to be visible and available to the public and should be easy for the public to understand; the lack of transparency in editorial policies raises questions about whether editors and journalists are under the editorial influence of their owners and whether they are practising self-censorship,” Strydom said.

One of Strydom’s recommendations is to create a best practice template to create transparency within newsrooms, and for newsrooms to consider incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into their editorial policies and make them publicly available.

Misinformation and disinformation have been a pandemic in the media space over the last few years, and what social media and AI are doing is accelerating that crisis, so it has become hard to distinguish and it has become a bigger issue that the media is struggling to deal with, Hunter said.

“We’ve learned a lesson as a media with our relationship with tech over 10-15 years ago where we didn’t have clear guidelines on how to deal with something new and unfamiliar, we didn’t really understand it and we’re facing the consequences today, for example, big tech is stealing our content and profits from our hard work and we’re trying to fight them but we’re late to the party,” said Hunter. She added that “the lesson to be learned is that we need to be proactive about artificial intelligence and how it could potentially decimate our industry and how it can benefit us”. Hunter said that with the advent of social media, the journalism industry has focused more on the benefits and not the consequences – for example, AI is exciting, but what are the consequences of news publications giving AI platforms access to their CMS?

Over the years, the journalism industry has struggled to build trust with its audiences, and the panel asked how the industry can rebuild trust. Magopeni said that when it comes to media ownership and trust, it shouldn’t be assumed that only external actors can influence media organisations and newsrooms, but that it is important to take into account the internal struggles that news editors can face within the newsroom.

“News owners have pressure to deliver revenue and they put pressure on editors and journalists in terms of the content that is produced, because if you rely on advertising to survive, the tendency is to produce content that speaks to the advertiser’s users rather than the publication’s audience, those are the layers that we need to consider,” Magopeni said. She said that news organisations “need to be transparent about ownership and that information needs to be made publicly available because audiences tend to label news organisations as ‘white monopoly capital’ and other labels that paint news publications as untrustworthy, but with the information publicly available it can prove to audiences that this is not true and that the ownership and the newsrooms are transforming”.

“The accessibility of editorial policy is not just about building a relationship of trust with the reader, there are a lot of people and audiences who are pro-news and need our help to give them the tools to fight for the media on our behalf,” Roper said. He warned that news organisations should not make the same mistake with AI as they did with social media, saying that news organisations were slow to respond to social media and integrate it into newsrooms.

“We shouldn’t be pro or anti-AI, AI is here, we need policies to deal with it,” Roper said. Magopeni said that while it is important to make editorial policies publicly available, there are issues that need to be addressed, such as educating journalists in newsrooms about the policies to ensure they follow them.”Having these policies alone is not enough to address these issues that we face as an industry in terms of media capture,” she said. She added that “journalists are a product of their environment, which includes ownership, because if an owner says one thing, a journalist will not question it using the editorial policy as a reference,” Magopeni said. She said that despite the importance of an editorial policy, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach; editorial policies will vary from one news organisation to another.

The report will be published in the coming weeks.

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