Student perspective: How Western media embraced TikTok to reach Gen Z

August 19, 2023 • Digital News, Recent, Student Perspective • by

More and more outlets have been using TikTok to engage Gen Z audiences. Photo by Shutterstock.

Western media’s rapid adoption of Chinese TikTok is a significant step toward engaging Gen Z audiences. According to a Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism article, first-generation social networks like Facebook and Twitter are losing their audiences in favour of more light-hearted platforms like TikTok.

With more than one billion active daily users, TikTok is one of the fastest-growing social networks. It is also the most downloaded non-game mobile app. The social media platform has been recognised by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential companies of 2023.

According to Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research, TikTok’s trends were heavily influenced by COVID-19 lockdown measures. Their recent Digital News Report 2023 indicates that the platform has experienced significant growth in some Eastern European countries, and the continuing conflict in Ukraine has further enhanced its significance.

Audience engagement potential

A few years after Tiktok’s launch, traditional media organisations began to understand its potential, and most of them have since joined the platform. According to the Reuters Digital News Project surveyalmost half of the most prominent media outlets in 44 countries regularly post news-related content on their TikTok accounts, despite concerns about Chinese ownership and customer data protection.

Among them is Deutsche Welle (DW), a German international broadcaster that began its first pilot phase on TikTok in the summer of 2020. This experimental account featured its lifestyle and culture content. Two years later, they expanded to nine regional accounts tailored to the language and location. However, the market determines how TikTok is utilised.

“It was a lot of learning and repeating or learning and failing… because you don’t really find Gen Z anywhere else but on TikTok. I feel like Gen Z is setting the agenda for media in one way because we’ve seen how they’re interested in climate change and social justice and less in the economy and finances,” says Erika Marzano, DW’s project manager for audience development. At the same time, the legacy media outlets also shape the agenda by giving the young audience something they want, but with their own angle.

The “new” news

As Marzano explains, users ask questions and discuss the topics, which is a sign that they are not just watching videos but also interacting. She says that “hard news” stories, like the number of kidnappings in Nigeria, don’t do well on TikTok, but controversial social discussions, such as those about the lives of Jews in Germany, do much better. TikTok is a place where reporters can explain, give context, dig deeper into the story, and show off their personalities.

“It’s all about the right storytelling, so you don’t just give the news, and that’s it. You explain, and this is the “new” news because the younger people don’t need to be only informed. They need to be educated,” adds Marzano.

TikTok’s success is determined by various factors, including its short vertical videos and an algorithm that forecasts people’s interest and enjoyment. Unlike other social media sites, it doesn’t require a huge number of followers to be successful. What is most important is regularly posting videos, and it favours personality-based approaches.

TikTok strategies

Nevertheless, each media organisation has its own TikTok strategy. The LA Times, for instance, has adopted a creator-led approach by putting together a group called 404, whose job is to bring in younger and more diverse audiences. The Economist concentrates on an eclectic strategy with politicians and cartoonists.

In contrast to publishers, well-known presenters, such as CNN’s Jake Tapper, Max Foster, and the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire, adopted TikTok much earlier and have amassed enormous followings.

However, what is interesting is that while TikTok has enjoyed success in Western media, governments and conventional outlets continue to be apprehensive about misinformation and security breaches. These concerns and the probable affiliations of the app with the Chinese Communist Party prompted restrictions by the US government and the thorough grilling of TikTok CEO Shou Chew during a Congressional hearing earlier this year.

Chew argued that the platform is taking these concerns seriously. He said: “Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialise any of these concerns. We have addressed them with real action.”

However, numerous governmental bodies, including the governments in the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Taiwan, and France, and organisations such as the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, the European External Action Service, and the European Court of Auditors, have also enforced TikTok restrictions on their devices. While Afghanistan, India and Pakistan have all implemented nationwide bans on the application.

It will be interesting to see how government restrictions affect the platform’s growth.

“Student Perspective” is an EJO series featuring journalism students’ work. It aims to give students a platform to raise their profile and contribute to discussions on trends and other key issues in the media industry.

Opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of the EJO or the organisations with which they are affiliated.

If you liked this story, you may also be interested in: Lessons from Spain: Why outlets need to unite to make Big Tech pay for news

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