The season dictates – Trust, media, and political leadership
By Natasja Beyleveld, Managing Director of NaMedia.
In the age of media abundance, trust is the glue in the relationship between media and their audience. As digital has increased the ‘media pace’ exponentially, it tends to get sticky. A South African story can become an Australian headline, with global echoes. With thousands of influencers sharing a single story, an agenda can be set with detrimental impact on a person or country’s reputation.
Measuring trust is essential for tracking citizens’ perceptions of the media organization and its output. These perceptions also have an impact on agenda setting (political, corporate and economic) and popular perceptions of various organisations as shaped across a variety of state-owned and independent media outlets. While radio and TV remain trusted sources of information in Namibia, the internet and social networks are trusted the least. Trust is an individual’s perception of the reliability of sources, and is ultimately the result of socio-economic conditions, education and long-standing perceptions.
Can media organizations work to increase trust in the medium and long term by championing credibility and authenticity? Is there still room for changing some destructive and long-standing perceptions? In a democracy, citizens delegate powers to individuals and political parties charged with building and maintaining institutions that will ensure the people’s well-being. In this arrangement, trust is one of the most important ingredients in the legitimacy and sustainability of political systems (Blind, 2006).
Several high-profile corruption scandals making headlines (for example the Gupta scandal in South Africa) hurt public confidence in media to find and tell the truth. The Afrobarometer, a research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance and economic conditions, finds the link between perceptions of official corruption resulting in sharply lower levels of trust in institutions of public order, which in turn has a negative impact on citizens’ perceptions of their democracy. Given economic pressure (unemployment, food insecurity, public debt), government-public communications become a cross fire for perceived versus real justice. 2% has never been as much as it was in Namibian media during the past few weeks. It’s a fire that doesn’t go out and its remains are forever online.
Across Africa, perceptions of corruption in government institutions have moved in a single direction – upward. It’s drawn into almost every discussion. For example, fewer than half of Basotho trust the three major institutions of order – the courts (49%), the police (44%), and the army (41%). Losing trust in public service (governance) becomes the underlying agenda above all other contentious issues discussed in media.
Government communications are evaluated for context and purpose, as opposed to promise and forecast. Public trust is also linked with public patience; a scarce resource such as reputation capital that leaders count on for drawing from in times of crisis. If there is drought in pocket, in resources, in perceived accountability of practices that have become incongruent with the economic situation of the country, then the trust (the process) versus expectation (outcome and action) face heated arguments. It becomes the underlying decay that revolts by protest, or ignorance. Some people say no to cake, because they want bread for tomorrow. If there is no bread for tomorrow, then fear is the root of conversation as opposed to peace or stability.
Perhaps it’s less about media trust, and more about political trust. When action speaks louder than money, you know that there is very little money left. Ultimately, print, radio and TV communications remain indispensable assets for Namibia.