An illustration of a monster-like creature with social media logos on it being interviewed by a journalist

The challenges facing journalism on TikTok

Illustration by Ian Phillips

Ginella Massa is talking to strangers again. She’s in her house, holding her phone close enough that you can see the top half of her cream sweater and her light pink hijab on screen as she records a video. Massa is using a green-screen filter to record a TikTok, and behind her is a picture of Hamilton Member of Provincial Parliament Sarah Jama. It’s October 23, 2023, and Jama has just been censured by the government and kicked out of caucus. Massa is explaining the incident to her TikTok audience.

As a media consultant, public speaker, and broadcast journalist with 13 years of experience, Massa is comfortable on camera. She worked as a reporter and anchor for CityTV Toronto until 2020, then as an anchor at CBC’s Canada Tonight with Ginella Massa until July 2023, and as a special correspondent for CBC’s The National until 2022. 

These days, though, she reaches her biggest audience on TikTok, where she’s amassed nearly 104,000 followers. Now, when she gets recognized on the street, she says, it’s always fifty-fifty whether the people who stop her know her from TV or from TikTok.

In all of Massa’s TikToks, she feels the responsibility of a journalist, but her words remain casual, as if she’s talking to a friend. Her filming setup is similarly low-key: she films when and where inspiration strikes, whether it’s while she’s walking, sitting in her car, or at home—but only if she’s alone. “I cannot record when my husband is home. There is something so cringy about it, I just cannot do it,” she says. Despite buying a lavalier mic, she can’t recall ever connecting it to her phone, and she rarely uses a ring light. Whenever she settles in to record, all she’s armed with is her phone and a green-screen filter.

“Seven months after she was voted in, Sarah Jama is now out of the NDP party over her comments supporting Palestine,” Massa says in her video. Over the next three minutes and 59 seconds, she explains why MPP Jama was ejected from the party. On October 10, 2023, three days after Hamas attacked Israel and Israel began its bombardment of Gaza, Jama called for an immediate ceasefire on social media platform X, Massa says. Following that statement, critics—including Ontario Premier Doug Ford—called for Jama’s resignation. “Then her own party leader called on her to retract her statement, saying it doesn’t reflect the party’s position and it was not approved by caucus,” says Massa in the video.

Behind her, Massa uses screenshots to facilitate her explanation. She includes statements from Jama and NDP leader Marit Stiles, as well as a post from Premier Ford’s X account. The format is simple, but it clearly resonates with viewers. As of February 2024, the video has 69,000 likes, 3,294 comments, 6,479 saves and 465,600 views. 

Massa has some understanding of TikTok’s algorithm, delivering nuanced stories to an expansive audience. A recent post about why people are boycotting Starbucks received 1.1 million views as of February. Her most watched video—about how to “hijabify a revealing dress”—had seven million views as of the same time. 

While these numbers might be appealing to other journalists and newsrooms trying to find their footing—and an audience—on the app, it may be challenging to replicate these results: building an audience can be a slow process, TikTok’s often inscrutable algorithm might make it difficult to predict what content will be successful and what will flop, and the platform is often rife with misinformation and disinformation. But as more young people are regularly using TikTok to get their news, journalists and publications are rushing to the platform to stay on their radar. In order to succeed and reach this valuable audience, it’s likely that they’ll have to adjust the way they do journalism to gain traction on the app—without sacrificing their journalistic principles.

TikTok wasn’t always a site for news. Its origins can be traced back to an app called, which launched in 2014 and allowed users to post short videos, typically of themselves lip-syncing to music. Two years later, ByteDance, a Chinese technology company, launched a short-form video app called Douyin, which was exclusive to China. A year later, it introduced TikTok, the global version of Douyin. ByteDance later acquired in 2017 and incorporated it with TikTok. Since then, it’s been TikTok’s mission to become the “leading destination for short-form mobile video.” 

So far, the plan seems to be working. In 2020, TikTok was the world’s most downloaded app. While TikTokers initially used the app to post dance and entertainment videos, around the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—and as Black Lives Matter protests erupted around the world—users began to turn to the app for information-sharing and news. 

According to Statista, the app’s user base—which rose to popularity in 2020 with 313.5 million downloads within the first quarter of the year—hit 1.7 billion users worldwide in 2022 and was projected to sit around 2.25 billion users in 2027. In Canada, its growth also hasn’t shown signs of stopping: a Toronto Metropolitan University study found that, among Canadians, TikTok is the fastest growing app, nearly tripling its growth rate of users in Canada from 10 percent in 2019 to 29 percent two years later.

Many U.S. adult users regularly turn to the app to get their news. According to Pew Research Center, the share of American adults that say they get their news from TikTok grew from three percent in 2020 to 14 percent in 2023. Last year 43 percent of American TikTok users said they regularly get news on the app. 

Canadian TikTok users reflect similar trends: a report by Kaiser & Partners, a Canadian public relations firm, found 85 percent of Gen Z respondents said that social media is their primary source for news. Forty-one percent of respondents said they use YouTube, 38 percent Instagram and 33 percent TikTok to get news. By contrast, less than a third of Gen Z respondents said they seek out their news from traditional channels.

TikTok isn’t just known for being a conduit for misinformation; it’s also been accused of censorship and racial bias

People may be increasingly relying on social media for their news consumption, but Canadian newsrooms were dealt a blow after the Online News Act—also known as Bill C-18—passed in June last year. The bill requires digital companies that earn over $1 billion a year and operate a search engine or social media site with an average of at least 20 million unique visitors per month, like Google and Meta, to provide Canadian news sites with compensation for Canadian news content shared on the tech giants’ platforms. Google reached a deal to compensate newsrooms in November 2023, but Meta has chosen instead to block Canadians from accessing and sharing news on any of its platforms, including Facebook and Instagram. The decision has cut off newsrooms from a large portion of their audiences and led to less traffic on their sites. A 2023 study by the Media Ecosystem Observatory found a nearly 90 percent drop in views of Canadian news outlets’ Facebook pages, from an estimated five to eight million daily views pre-ban.

“Instagram was a big player in reaching younger audiences and Facebook reached everyone, a lot of older people as well,” says Abeer Khan, who worked as the social media producer for The Walrus magazine until January this year.

The Walrus’s TikTok existed before Bill C-18 but Khan says that it became an important brand awareness tool after the bill passed. Because The Walrus does long-form journalism, its stories have many complex ideas to unpack, she adds. As part of its TikTok content, the magazine tries to break down elements of its long-form stories to appeal to a larger, potentially younger, audience. It also uses the app’s comment section to encourage direct engagement from viewers.

“There’s no silver bullet strategy [to the changing social media landscape] after the effects of Meta’s ban on Canadian news. So it’s really all about experimentation, research, trial and error,” says Sarah Krichel, social media manager for The Tyee, an online independent news magazine based out of B.C. Krichel started The Tyee’s TikTok in 2021 but since Bill C-18, it’s been prioritizing the app more.

It makes sense that news organizations would want to pivot to TikTok to regain some of their post-C-18 social media losses. However, Krichel says that the platform can be challenging to navigate for news agencies. As Khan notes, even if a TikTok takes off, it doesn’t necessarily lead to more traffic flowing to The Walrus’s site.

That’s largely because the app is designed to prioritize an in-app experience. Only business accounts or accounts with more than 1,000 followers are allowed to add links to TikTok at all—and even then, users can only add one link to their profile at a time, and can only have that link in their bios. 

Khan says it may be harder for users to take the extra step required to seek out and click through links since that isn’t what the app is for. Krichel agrees, saying when users are scrolling through content, they usually aren’t in a mindset to further investigate issues. It isn’t as if nobody researches things they find on TikTok, but often, she continues, “that’s not where your brain is at.”

Rather than looking to drive traffic, some newsrooms are opting to use TikTok as a way to reach new audiences and create brand awareness. “What we use TikTok for mainly is to get our stories out there to get people to know who The Walrus is. And if they’re interested in our stories on TikTok, then hopefully they’ll take the initiative to go on our website,” says Khan.

“Our goal is also to inform people, and you can’t inform everyone if you’re not on sites where everyone is,” she continues. “Not being on socials is kind of doing a disservice to the large amounts of people that are on those platforms who do want to learn. They might not know where to get information.” 

Krichel agrees that while newsletters have been around for quite a while, they are a good example of how organizations are shifting after Bill C-18 to have direct contact with their readers. “But at the end of the day, there’s still this big question mark around discoverability. And how do you find new audiences? That is kind of what social media is all about now,” she says. 

Newsrooms’ biggest barrier to discoverability on TikTok is standing out on the app’s endless stream of content. TikTok users view content on the app’s “For You” page, which generates a personalized feed. This feed serves users videos based on factors such as what they’ve previously liked, shared, or commented on, and what accounts they follow—an unending scroll that aims to keep users on the app. 

“One thing that is shared across TikTok, or Instagram, or Facebook, is they want to capture data about what you’re paying attention to, what you’re interacting with, to gather the signals of your behaviour,” says ProPublica reporter Craig Silverman, who has reported on social media, misinformation, and digital manipulation for more than a decade. This is all in an effort to show you content you are more likely to engage with, and keep you logged on longer, he says. The more time users spend on the platform, the more advertisements they view, and the more money the platform makes.

The more videos a user posts, the more likely it is that one of those videos might go viral. According to research by the Reuters Institute, this unpredictability means there is “no single recipe for success on TikTok,” making it difficult to determine what content will actually be successful. At the same time, it can also mean that even accounts without huge followings can have their videos rack up hundreds of thousands of views.

Silverman says on apps like TikTok, where a huge amount of content is posted—not just every day but every second—what is likely going to stand out or get recommended is sensational or emotional content that will get the strongest reaction. “It’s often the stuff that is the funniest, the most anger-inducing, the strangest,” he says. “When it comes to the context of news, the more extreme, the more outrageous, the more novel the claim, the more likely it is to potentially get engagement.”

This also means that misinformation can spread quickly on the app, particularly if erroneous info produces a strong reaction in viewers or appeals to a viewer’s preexisting beliefs—and the short-form video format can contribute to the spreading of misinformation as it leaves little room for context or nuance. “Most of the false and misleading information that tends to spread and really get a lot of interaction engagement on social platforms does tend to be visual images, videos, memes,” says Silverman.

Disinformation, he adds, is the conscious creation and spreading of false or misleading information. The main intention is to deceive, and this intent is what makes it different from misinformation. Misinformation is the sharing or creation of information that is false or misleading but is unintentional. This happens a lot, he explains. “People encounter a piece of information and it seems true to them or it aligns with their belief or it’s in concert with something they’d already heard and they pass it along, not knowing it’s false.”

Journalists making content on TikTok need to fight to be seen over what can sometimes be a barrage of dis- and misinformation, particularly when they are covering stories of global importance. Take content about Mpox, for example. Mpox (previously referred to as Monkeypox), a viral illness that can be transmitted through close bodily contact with someone who is infectious, was discussed on the app after a global outbreak started in May 2022. As the disease spread, extreme conspiracy theories on social media did as well, with posts that implied that the outbreak was planned or that the virus was linked to COVID-19 vaccines, racking up thousands of likes and reposts.

“We need to meet people where they are. Most people do not pay for cable or buy newspapers. We need to be speaking in their language”

Marco Zenone, a PhD student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Timothy Caufield, a professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, tracked TikTok videos that appeared under the #monkeypox hashtag on May 21, 2022. The researchers hoped to get a rapid assessment of how dis- and misinformation about the disease was spreading on the app. Of the 864 videos they analyzed, 153 contained conspiracy theories related to Mpox. Some, for example, advanced a popular theory that Bill Gates was to blame for the outbreak, and 51 challenged the usefulness of Mpox vaccines. 

The easy spread of misinformation on TikTok shows the importance of having verified, contextualized, and sourced content on the app. At the same time, it also places heavy responsibility on newsrooms and journalists to use their platform wisely. “It is important for us all to kind of have a certain sense of vigilance and to not think we’re immune to this misinformation. And that’s especially true for journalists, who often think that because our job is to professionally be engaged in facts, that we are, therefore, more immune,” says Silverman, “But we can fall for things just as anyone else can.”

TikTok isn’t just known for being a conduit for misinformation; it’s also been accused of censorship and racial bias. Sometimes, this is referred to by creators and users as shadowbanning—a process in which TikTok restricts the visibility of an account or post, usually without the poster’s knowledge. Journalists and newsrooms are not immune to this phenomenon. 

In a TikTok post from last December, for example, Massa wonders out loud to her over 103,000 followers if she’s experiencing censoring. “I’m not one to believe in conspiracy theories but I believe TikTok has put me in jail,” she says. She’s positioned in front of a screenshot of her own TikTok page. She says that lately, many of her videos are not reaching more than 10,000 views—previously, they’d easily manage more than 100,000, depending on the video. Massa explains that she’d seen people talk about being shadowbanned after they posted content in relation to Israel and Palestine, and wonders whether she might be experiencing the same thing. But she hasn’t been able to personally verify the claims, or find conclusive evidence that shadowbanning is to blame for her loss of views.

When asked about shadowbanning, she admits her content has changed a bit recently. She used to post a variety of content, including lifestyle get-ready-with-me videos and behind-the-scenes videos along with explainers on her “News You Can Use” playlist, which focuses on news content, media commentary, and posts about media literacy. In October, she shifted to posting more explainers about Israel, Palestine, and Gaza. In November, one of her videos about boycotts, divestment, and sanctions of Israel got more than a million views. Many of the videos directly following that failed to reach 10,000.

It’s difficult to confidently say when shadowbanning occurs, because there’s no way to actually confirm when it happens. While creators have accused TikTok of silencing Palestinian voices and content, a spokesperson for the platform told Al Jazeera that the company does not moderate content based on “political sensitivity” and only removes content that violates community guidelines. 

Still, Massa has valid reasons to be suspicious. Human Rights Watch conducted research from October 7, 2023, to November 28, 2023, that documented over 1,000 cases of takedowns or suppression related to Palestine on Instagram and Facebook. This quiet censorship might make it difficult for journalists or small newsrooms to reach their audiences when they’re reporting on topics platforms may have deemed “controversial”—even if those topics are ones their audiences want to hear about. 

In building a loyal audience on TikTok, journalists and newsrooms might find themselves in competition with activists, content creators, and influencers. In 2021, Reuters Institute Digital News Report collected data on news media and social media habits from Europe, the Americas, Asia Pacific and Africa. Their findings suggest that while mainstream news brands and journalists attract a lot of attention on Facebook and Twitter, the most popular sources for news on TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram are media influencers rather than journalists. The report found that only 14 percent of users on TikTok said they watch videos from mainstream news outlets, while 36 percent observe celebrities and influencers and 23 percent rely on ordinary people for news. 

“Our competition on TikTok is not other news outlets—it’s creators, it’s influencers,” says Mel Woods, the senior editor of audience engagement at Xtra, an online magazine that covers 2SLGBTQIA+ culture, politics, relationships, and health. Xtra does create content about queer and trans health, for example, but Woods says there are doctors and health-care professionals who also make that content themselves. In those cases, users can go directly to individual sources for information, with the caveat that the information is coming straight from the source, but likely without the level of fact-checked accuracy required of a journalistic report. “Does a viewer on TikTok want to hear me recap a march for trans kids? Or do they want to hear from somebody who organized it and was there themselves who’s making a video?” says Woods. Part of the appeal of these creators is the perceived reliability factor, they explain. In order to make their work stand out, Woods says, it’s important to add journalistic reporting to the conversation. They explain that, usually, journalistic organizations have editorial standards, which involve processes such as fact-checking, copyediting, and seeking out multiple sources and perspectives. “A journalistic organization will do the research and the fact-checking to make sure that the words we’re using are correct, and that our sources are cited and that our information has rigour behind it,” says Woods. An influencer throwing together a TikTok based on aggregated news stories may not. 

Quiet censorship might make it difficult for journalists or small newsrooms to reach their audiences on topics deemed “controversial”

Massa expresses a similar sentiment about the importance of verification. “I’m very careful about ensuring that I’m using reputable sources in everything that I do, because I know how easy it is for things to go viral. I feel a responsibility to ensure that my content is accurate, or at the very least, sourced,” says Massa, “Not everyone on social media is going to apply that standard, because most of them are not journalists.” 

Massa says that despite the challenges being on TikTok brings, it’s still a worthy place for newsrooms and journalists to invest their time. “People who are educated in this field need to be in these spaces, so that they can apply that rigorous journalistic standard to a medium that has the possibility to inform so many people,” she says.

Besides, adapting to new technology and consumer trends has long been a reality for journalists. “I feel we need to be in these spaces, because we need to meet people where they are. And the reality is, in my experience, most people my age, millennials and Gen Z, do not pay for cable, do not buy newspapers. They are getting their information online on social media. And so we need to be speaking in their language,” says Massa. 

This could mean using humour, sketches, skits, or even trending sounds to break down content—strategies that can entice a user to watch a video beyond the first five seconds.

Both Woods and Krichel say that they can see a space for collaboration between newsrooms and independent journalists or even specific content creators. This would involve connecting the editorial standards of a newsroom with the innovation of independent creators. “I think there are a ton of creators out there who do a really good job at not only fact-checking and bringing together reliable information, but also presenting it in a way that young people want to see,” says Krichel, “as if you’re just on FaceTime with your really smart friend. I think when the content is available, it is a very popular way of consuming the news among young people.” 

Massa agrees that if they want to be successful on TikTok, newsrooms need to put effort into developing a strategy specific to the app. “I think one of the mistakes that mainstream media make when they get into these spaces is that they just repurpose the content that they’ve created for TV, and copy and paste it onto the platform,” she says. “We need to dedicate time and resources to speak in the language of that medium, and the tone and the style of that medium, rather than just trying to repurpose content from another medium that doesn’t feel authentic.”

About the author

+ posts

Sahaana Ranganathan is a second-year Master of Journalism student at Toronto Metropolitan University. She’s produced segments for TVO’s the Agenda with Steve Paikin, does research for the Investigative Journalism Bureau and is the Art Director for The Otter. She’s passionate about combining arts, culture with social justice.

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