X Close

TikTok’s bizarre new craze: reporting the news

Tasteful? Credit: Guardian Australia, TikTok.

August 19, 2021 - 11:00am

TikTok, the most downloaded app of 2020, is expanding into the news business. Influencers and news outlets are capitalising on TikTok’s young user base (60 percent of its US users are between 16 and 24 years old) to drive engagement and build their brand: The Washington Post now has 900,000 TikTok followers; NBC has 1 million. Max Foster, a London-based CNN reporter, has 380,000 followers, more than his audience on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram combined. 

Just as infographics took over Instagram, news videos are a hit on TikTok because they provide a perfect tool to create a succinct, story-telling snapshot. One of the most recent TikTok news success stories is this Guardian Australia video breaking down the current Afghanistan crisis, which amassed over 4.5 million views. Dave Jorgensen, self-proclaimed ‘Washington Post TikTok guy’, retweeted the video, saying that it was “really well done” and “accessible.”

Explainers like these are effective at engaging Gen Z audiences, around 51 percent of whom rely on TikTok for their news — compared to 26 percent of millennials. But their brevity inevitably means they compromise on context. For example, in The Guardian Australia video, reporter Matilda Boseley starts with the 9/11 attacks; there is no mention of Operation Cyclone or the fall of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, or how the Taliban were funded in the 1990s, or that the Taliban offered to negotiate the handover of Bin Ladin. This is important context that younger audiences are likely to be unaware of (around one in four Americans are too young to remember 9/11.) 

Even if one could forgive these omissions for the sake of keeping the script under two minutes, the video is also tonally bizarre and bordering on insensitive. Rather than just doing a simple voiceover, Boseley uses green screen to superimpose herself over a slideshow of harrowing images. This means that viewers are treated to shots of her collection of pot plants between footage of the burning Twin Towers. Furthermore, her peppy personality and ‘YouTuber inflection’ sounds like she is recapping a Netflix series rather than discussing the deaths of over 170,000 people. 

Is the problem with the limitations of the platform, or the limitations of its users? Is there a way to be ‘down with the kids’ without dumbing down? Marcus DiPaola, host of News 101 on Snapchat and a ‘news anchor’ on TikTok with over 2.5 million followers, says that he wants to be the “translator of mainstream media to teenagers”, and published his own style guide in which he says the main goal is to be ‘blunt, clear and brief.’ That’s fine, but when your aim is to also be so accessible that ‘middle schoolers with learning disabilities with zero knowledge of government’ can ‘understand [your] script’, then surely some nuance is going to be lost along the way.

There needs to be a middle ground here: a way to make content comprehensible but also comprehensive, and shareable without lowering our standards.


Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.

kristinamurkett

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

6 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Christina Dalcher
Christina Dalcher
2 years ago

“Gen Z audiences, around 51 percent of whom rely on TikTok for their news
”

There’s one way to cure any fears of my own mortality!

aaron david
aaron david
2 years ago

As much as I am a deep reader, a news junkie if you will, and always have been, is this really any different than someone who just scans headlines to get a gist of what’s going on in the world? Of someone reading an explainer in VOX?
Traditional media has failed. But that doesn’t mean that that the general public has no interest in what’s going on, what it means, and where we go from there. That is isn’t NBC or the BBC is no surprise, as these institutions have failed miserably in the mission to inform.
Is TikTok better? I have no idea, but I do know that the decentralization of media is in some ways good. And if a short video spurs just one viewer to dig deeper, then it is a fair tradeoff.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  aaron david

At that age I could actually read news articles
 and did.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

I also read them but I don’t believe for one moment that I understood them. I certainly didn’t know the background and the history.

Arguably (note, arguably) the British, Russians, Americans and many others are at least partially responsible for what is happening in Afghanistan today. But the mainline media just keep on focusing on the recent withdrawal of the Americans – as if a continuous occupation of a country is the right way forward. Afghanistan is all about history. But would I have understood this in my youthful reading?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

All of this is about one thing – how can the youthful mind be pointed in the ‘correct’ direction to ensure that the other side doesn’t get there first. In some cases the aims may be honourable but mostly it is to create cannon fodder for the future. I mean this in a political sense but it will also help to train young people to accept and be responsive to certain advertising campaigns.

It is not an honorable business, it is evil. In one of my cynical moments I have watched scenes of carnage on Al Jazeera, where the cameras always focus on poor children, and thought ‘If the cameras focused on injured animals there would be a much bigger reaction – the whole world would scream.’

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
2 years ago

For the younger generations the desire for condensed sources of information may have been a natural reaction to the exponential flood of information and entertainment available with the internet. But this unfortunate fact has resulted in large segments of the population with very shallow “knowledge” of most topics, and this limited knowledge is provided by a limited and oftentimes biased source(s).
So to answer a (paraphrased) noteworthy 2008 Atlantic magazine article titled: “Is Google (Internet) making us stupid?” – YES.