What study tells us about media trust and public perception of journalists in Kenya

Journalism at work

Journalism at work during the recent General Election. Information sources available to Kenyan voters continue to multiply.

The August 2022 General Election, aligned with previous events in Kenya’s recent electoral history, highlights the importance of understanding how Kenyans get news about elections, and the trustworthiness that they ascribe to different sources.

Two reports released by the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) in June and July this year showed varying percentages of media coverage of the four presidential candidates in the elections— Dr William Ruto, Mr Raila Odinga, Prof George Wajackoyah, and Mr David Mwaure — and their running mates. 

On June 24, 2022, MCK revealed that Mr Odinga, the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition presidential flag bearer, received the highest levels of media coverage (61.2 per cent of media space) compared to Dr Ruto, his main rival and eventual winner on a Kenya Kwanza Alliance ticket (38.2 per cent). Yet in the early July results, Dr Ruto’s media coverage volume stood at 46 per cent against Mr Odinga’s 45 per cent. Prof Wajackoyah and David Mwaure received 6 per cent and 3 per cent respectively.

Investigate public perception

Deviations such as these in reportage of media coverage of political actors during the peak of political season in Kenya underscore the need to investigate the public’s perception of the media and their trust of news sources.

To examine media and election-related issues, we conducted a survey on media trust and perception of journalists and media in Kenya. Findings indicate differences in how Kenyans access news. Their levels of trust depend on where journalists disseminate their news, that is, do they broadcast on mainstream or traditional media, on social media, or on a mixture of both?

The survey was conducted between June 6 and July 12, 2022 in Nairobi and its surrounding outskirts. Of the 1,100 targeted sample size, 1,048 responses were collected — a 95 per cent response rate. Most of the participants were educated (97.6 per cent), male (51.6 per cent), aged between 18 and 25 (62.1 per cent), and protestant (37.3 per cent).

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube were the main sources of news (48.8 per cent), followed by television (25.4 per cent) and online newspapers (10.6 per cent) — underlining the growing importance of social media platforms in the Kenyan media ecosystem. Almost three-quarters (74.4 per cent) of the respondents use social media platforms to view news headlines. While a plurality (43.9 per cent) clicks on news links to read the news items further, half (49.3 per cent) neither post or share news nor like or comment on the news (40.3 per cent). Interestingly, almost half (44.2 per cent) discuss news items with others — demonstrating the important role of social media in Kenyan discourse.

Trust in journalism

Generally, trust in journalism in Kenya is moderate to low and varies on journalists’ platform of dissemination. Our survey asked respondents to indicate levels of trust based on the platform from which the journalist was reporting. Mainstream media journalists showed the highest levels of trust, at 41.1 per cent. For journalists solely working on social media platforms, the figure was the lowest, at 31.4 per cent. For journalists employed by mainstream media but reporting on social media, the figure was 37.4 per cent.

Some differences were seen when comparing trust levels by age. Older users were more likely to trust traditional “legacy” mass media (46.2 per cent vs. 39.8 per cent for the youngest users). Interestingly, younger respondents were also less trusting of independent journalists on social media, perhaps reflecting greater experience with the medium than their older counterparts.

Information sources available to Kenyan voters continue to multiply. Our findings point to the need to track media evolution closely.  As more journalism is driven toward the looser world of social media, the reliability and factuality of the information available to Kenyans in the political process are as important as ever. Without continuing attention to issues of accuracy, beneficial working conditions for journalists, and generally free and unfettered access to quality reporting, the political process will suffer.

Social media offer many avenues for freer forms of communication. But legacy mass media, with their professionalism, gatekeeping standards, and higher trust levels will be missed if attention is not paid to how accuracy is assessed and encouraged on social media. Questions about how social media should be regulated are still being asked around the world, and they are quite relevant in Kenya.


About the Study

This study was funded by the Kern Scholarship for Innovation in Journalism Award. The award provides financial support to the Media School, Indiana University-Bloomington graduate students for projects that encourage research and experimentation in new journalistic concepts, content, and techniques, especially those that support the profession’s public affairs mission.

Kevin Mudavadi is a Ph.D. Student in the Media School at Indiana University-Bloomington, United States. He received his Master of Arts degree in Communication Studies from United States International University-Africa and Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from St Paul’s University Kenya.

James Shanahan is a professor in the Media School at Indiana University-Bloomington. From 2015-2021 he was the Founding Dean of the Media School.