TikTok is not the enemy of journalism. It’s just a new way to reach people | Chris Stokel-Walker
Jgoy-three million people in uk use TikTok every month. Boosted by the pandemic and its impact on remote working, apps like TikTok and Instagram have become the digital equivalent of the water cooler. This is where we talk the island of lovethe latest soap operas, the dysfunctions of our government and what is happening in the world.
So why are we so surprised that this is a place people turn to for information?
Ofcom’s latest report on news consumption in the UK, showing that TikTok is the fastest growing source of adult news, has been greeted with disbelief and concern over the death of ” traditional journalism. It’s the second such warning shot across the old media arcs in as many months: TikTok has also been identified as the fastest growing news source in the digital news report. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in June.
But rather than seeing it as a threat, the old media should see it as a natural evolution. The news finds us in the best possible way, and always has. Whether it’s the shift from newspapers carrying (sometimes days) old news, to TV bulletins summarizing a day into an evening, to constant updates from 24-hour TV channels and updates on social media, the way journalism has been presented has always been in flux.
When radio, and later television, began to engage in global reporting, people in the press feared that the speed and immediacy of broadcast media would make the print pay. Decades later, the print is still with us. Nightly news broadcasts were also expected to go the way of the dodo when CNN began broadcasting 24 hours a day, but date viewing remains relatively strong for well-packaged summaries of the day’s news. And all of them were to be overtaken by the Internet. At every inflection point in the evolution of journalism, the arguments were the same: the medium was so different, and the speed at which information was gathered and transmitted, that journalism was going to the hounds. The old ways of presenting the news were always the best – until the new thing came along, the world didn’t stop and, in fact, people preferred the alternative.
Now, TikTok does things differently — in style, format, and how it presents videos to users — than even other tech platforms, and so was always going to be a bigger break from what had happened before. In a world where horizontal landscape video dominates our TV screens and YouTube, TikTok has flipped the notion, delivering full-screen vertical video.
It also has a different cadence, language and style of presentation than even other social media platforms, which is why it’s less possible for news outlets to simply recut their existing TV or Facebook video to the platform.
But all this does not necessarily mean dumbing down, nor the end of journalistic values. Journalism’s old guard latched onto a key statistic to make their case: Less than a third of young people trust what they see on TikTok – less than half the proportion who trust TV news .
Which is partly true, because TikTok is a young platform and is mostly user-generated. While media such as the Washington Post have successfully migrated to the platform, producing idiosyncratic videos that take a tongue-in-cheek stance on the news of the day, most media platforms have shunned TikTok to date.
This leaves a void that individuals, who are often not trained journalists, have filled. Nearly twice as many users (44%) say they get information from other people they follow on the app than from news organizations (24%). When confronted with stories such as the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp libel lawsuit, TikTok’s “news” can often fail, becoming a forum for slanderous gossip and painfully off-track over-analysis.
In the same way, however, the app became a tool for gathering and presenting information at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ordinary Ukrainians took to their smartphones and documented the Russian regime’s atrocities, their footage viewed nearly a million times a minute at the start of the war.
The reality is that TikTok is where the audience is these days: one billion globally. It is therefore logical that the media are also present. The BBC has, for at least a decade or more, sought out a “restocking” audience – W1A speak on behalf of young viewers and listeners to replace the old dying audience it currently has. (The average age of a BBC One and BBC Two viewer is well north of 60, according to BBC Director General Tim Davie.) So far he has done so without success.
That’s partly because the BBC has sought to tinker around the edges rather than overhaul the way it does journalism. This has led to frustration, with a number of young journalists who produced content for apps such as TikTok leaving the organization in recent months. Two of the BBC’s biggest former names on TikTok are Sophia Smith Galer (411,000 subscribers) and Emma Bentley (53,000 subscribers), who have moved on to more nimble outlets more willing to accept social media news: Vice and The News Movement respectively.
Broadcasting and journalism industries that pride themselves on reacting quickly and giving the public what they want should avoid format snobbery. What upstart news outlets — and those who leave the big beasts of journalism for them — have recognized is that the information was never put in amber. After all, the news is no longer presented in tuxedos and bow ties, because the public has decided that is old hat.