Whose News Do You Trust? Explaining Trust in Private versus Public Media in Africa

Article excerpt

Abstract

Why do citizens in postauthoritarian African democracies trust government-owned broadcast media more than they trust private broadcasters, given the public media's lack of independence and history of state propaganda? Analysis of Afrobarometer data from sixteen countries indicates that low political sophistication, illiberal attitudes, and support for incumbents are all associated with greater relative trust in government media. Citizens also prefer public broadcasters in polities with greater press freedom and lower corruption. These results suggest that private media need more democratic and critical citizens, rather than higher quality reporting and greater press freedom, to compete with the state media for influence and resources.

Keywords

media trust, democracy, Africa, freedom of the press, political communication, media ownership

On the main thoroughfare in Kampala, there is a twentyfoot- tall red billboard advertising the Daily Monitor, Uganda's largest privately owned newspaper. A giant pair of scissors cuts through hanging ropes, and bold lettering pronounces, "You get the truth because we've no strings attached. The one to trust-Daily Monitor." The newspaper's regular slogan, "Truth every day," is written across the bottom. The billboard is a thinly veiled dig at the independence of the Daily Monitor's larger rival, the predominantly government-owned New Vision newspaper.

This rivalry between private and government-owned media for audience trust is played out daily across most of Africa. Two decades ago, private presses were limited and governments maintained strict control of all mass communications. Today, only Eritrea has an official monopoly over all forms of mass media. Aside from Eritrea, no other sub-Saharan African country has a monopoly over print media, and seven countries even lack a governmentowned daily newspaper.1 Government ownership of broadcast media is more widespread, but private-public competition has become the norm for radio as well. Out of forty-seven sub-Saharan countries, thirty-nine have both public and private radio stations; there are only eight countries where government radio is the only choice available.2 While private media operate under various restrictions3 and with far fewer resources, most African countries now have a diversity of news sources.

To investigate whether the burgeoning private media are likely to be influential and sustainable, this article analyzes mass trust in private versus public broadcast media in sixteen postauthoritarian African democracies, using data from Afrobarometer rounds 2 and 3.4 There are strong reasons to expect that citizens in new democracies would place considerably more trust in private media organizations than in public ones. Government-owned media in Africa have a history of subservience to authoritarian regimes, and even today most are not independent of the government. In contrast, privately owned media outlets, both in Africa and around the world, are more responsive to the public, critical of the government, and open to opposing perspectives.5 As a result, the private media play the role of watchdog much more than the public media do, investigating allegations of corruption, theft, and election fraud (Tettey 2002).

Surprisingly, the survey reveals that citizens have higher levels of trust in government broadcast media outlets than in private ones, even though all sixteen countries had experienced recent transitions away from authoritarian rule. That public media are perceived as equally or more trustworthy than private media is problematic for African democracies. Even relatively democratic African administrations centralize power to a considerable degree, dominating all levels of government and playing a critical role in both the economy and society. There are few checks on governing parties, either inside the government or out. Because the government's position is so strong, the private media cannot function effectively as a counterweight to the power of the ruling party unless they are trusted more than official sources. …