By Lwazi Maseko and Stuart Dickinson: Code For Africa (CFA) has conducted new research on the impact editorial policy has in tackling media capture. The findings will be released in an upcoming report that highlights the importance editorial policies have in upholding journalistic ethics and ensuring transparency.

CFA partnered with the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) to launch the report at the Wits Centre for Journalism on 5 May, 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 CFA. The event was moderated by Katy Katopodis, director and co-founder of Nala Media.

The report was conducted in three countries – Kenya, South Africa and Zambia – and focuses on 11 themes, each of which explains how the media is or can be vulnerable to media capture.

“Less than half of the newsrooms we sampled disclosed their ownership and management structures on their websites, which is very concerning for us,” said Amanda Strydom, senior programme manager for CivicSignal at CFA. “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.

“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 the numbers around South African Press Code transparency were more encouraging. Of the 18 print and online publications involved in the study, 12 have a clear statement adhering to the stipulations laid out in the Press Code linked on their websites. The numbers were less encouraging for broadcast media. Only five of the 12 outlets interviewed had clear links to the declarations of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, making it harder for the public to find the correct channels to file a complaint for a particular broadcast.

The report also looks at the highly topical issue of artificial intelligence (AI) in the newsroom. In all three countries involved in the study, not one newsroom or media organisation has a declaration pertaining to how they utilise AI or treat synthetic media.

“Who owns AI tools like ChatGPT and the smaller, cheaper models coming out? Are newsrooms making themselves vulnerable by providing data or CMS access to these companies? Suddenly you’re exposed to someone else’s commercial interest, or their way of manipulating bias in information.

“Africa had to play catch-up to countries like the US in terms of examining and implementing policies around major social media sites. To have AI policies in place now ensures that we stay on the front foot and ensure a seat at the table in terms of generating best-practice policies,” Strydom continued.

“One of our recommendations is that, together with Sanef and Code For Africa, we create best-practice policy templates, allowing newsrooms to cherry-pick wording within those templates that work for them within their unique contexts. Another recommendation from the report is to encourage newsrooms which put these policies in place to share them publicly with others,” said Strydom.

“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,” said Hunter. “It has become harder to distinguish [real and fake news] and has become an issue that the media is struggling to deal with.

“We’ve learned a lesson as media in our relationship with tech. Over 10 to 15 years ago, 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.”

She added: “The lesson to be learned is that we need to be proactive about artificial intelligence and how it could potentially decimate our industry, and also how it can benefit us.”

Hunter said that with the advent of social media, the journalism industry had 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 could rebuild that 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 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,” said Magopeni.

She added that news organisations needed to be transparent about ownership and that information needed to be made publicly available, because audiences tend to label news organisations as ‘white monopoly capital’, among other labels that paint them as untrustworthy. But with the information being publicly available, it could prove to audiences that this is not true, and that newsrooms and their ownership are transforming.

“The accessibility of editorial policy is not just about building a relationship of trust with the reader,” said Roper. “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.

He warned that news organisations should not make the same mistake with AI as they did with social media, saying that they 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,” said Roper.

Magopeni added that while it was important to make editorial policies publicly available, there are issues that needed to be addressed, such as educating journalists in newsrooms about 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. 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,” said Magopeni, and added that despite the importance of an editorial policy, there could not 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.