Forty-one shares, 78 comments, 404 likes—it’s the first video to hit over 13,000 views since CBC North launched its TikTok account in September.
Stereotypical newscast music plays in the background, Luke Carroll, a CBC journalist based in Yellowknife, breaks down the facts in 36 seconds. He’s standing in the newsroom. “Evacuees left with thousands in expenses,” reads a six-second text on screen. Carroll is reporting on how Yellowknife renters are dealing with wildfire evacuation costs.
TikTok is a popular social media app that enables users to create short videos; users can also comment on, like and share other people’s content.
Canadian news outlets are using TikTok as a way of growing an online community in the wake of Bill C-18 — an act requiring social media outlets to compensate news organizations for using their stories. In response to the bill, Facebook’s parent company Meta blocked access to news on Facebook and Instagram in Canada. Google will also remove links to Canadian news from its search and other products by December.
Now, news outlets are spending more time on TikTok.
“Quite literally, we have nowhere else to go,” says Carson Asmundson, the social editor and presenter for CBC North. Because of Bill C-18, he says TikTok is the only social media he can use for his Canadian audience.
TikTok is Canada’s fastest growing content distribution platform, but also the least trusted social media app in the country according to a survey published earlier this year by the Leadership Lab, a think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU).
This year, the Canadian government banned employee use of TikTok on work devices over security and privacy concerns. All provincial and territorial governments followed.
“You never know if some rebel billionaire buys a whole social media platform and burns it to the ground, or…if the government’s going to ban TikTok use entirely,” says Adrian Ma, the undergraduate program director of journalism at TMU.
X v. TikTok
“CBC had some beef with Elon Musk, so we’re not really on Twitter much and that’s not really advised by our social strategy, so I’m on TikTok,” says Asmundson.
CBC took a pause from Twitter (now called X), after Musk, the owner, labeled the corporation’s account “government-funded media.” U.S. public broadcaster NPR quit Twitter after Musk labeled the non-profit as “state-affiliated media.”
Musk dropped the labels soon after. Some CBC accounts, like CBC Nova Scotia, returned to X — but not all.
According to answers from the Leadership Lab’s 2,000 survey respondents, X decreased in users by almost 15 per cent in Canada since 2019; TikTok nearly tripled its reach to 29 per cent from 10 in two years.
“Oftentimes you have to take news to where people are, not make people come to you,” says Ma.
That’s where TikTok comes in.
“We have seen that the new generation of journalism grads and journalists are very comfortable on this platform,” says Jennifer Hollett, the executive director of The Walrus. “It’s really been a diverse group of young storytellers who have helped our TikTok take off.”
But Canadian trust levels for TikTok continue to fall. The Leadership Lab survey shows 50 per cent of respondents had low trust in the app in 2022 — almost a 40 per cent increase in distrust from 2021. TikTok even replaced Facebook as the least-trusted app in the country.
Western governments are concerned that the Chinese technology firm, ByteDance — TikTok’s parent company — could potentially hand over personal employee user information to the Chinese government.
Ma, who specializes in teaching digital news reporting, says he doesn’t think TikTok is more distrustful than other social media platforms.
“If anything, TikTok may present an opportunity to reach people when they’re younger, like help teach them media literacy,” says Ma. “If you provide them good sources of news at a younger age, you know, maybe there’s a hope that it actually helps more than it hurts.”
“At The Walrus, we really strive to be Canada’s conversation, so it’s our job to show up where conversations are taking place and where stories are being shared,” says Hollett.
The Walrus launched its TikTok page in 2020, around the same time Hollett joined the team. She was excited because she had just created her own TikTok account.
“I think the early days of TikTok, especially that first year of lockdowns, were some of the most exciting times because we were all bored in the house bored,” says Hollett.
As of late October 2023, @thewalrusca had 2,151 followers and is run by a team of digital storytellers. The Walrus aims to create TikToks based on what it’s producing on other platforms: longform journalism on their website, highlights from the latest print edition, podcasts or clips from recent events they’ve hosted.
The Walrus wants people on TikTok to engage with all different forms of journalism on the website, but it’s challenging, says Hollett.
“We want anyone who is enjoying our posts on TikTok, to come to thewalrus.ca because then we can invite them to read the full story, stick around for a second story, join our newsletter, come to an event and maybe in time, make a donation or get a subscription,” she says.
TikTok isn’t built for driving website traffic, Hollett says, but it’s good for brand awareness and engagement.
For Asmundson, the challenge is the audience divide in TikTok’s comments section. “It just brings the worst out on both sides of an issue.”
Asmundson says CBC North had a regular audience on Facebook and Instagram, unlike TikTok.
“We weren’t sending things out into the void. It was to our 120,000 people who cared rather than the people who think space lasers are coming down or whatever,” he says, referring to a conspiracy theory that went viral on TikTok.
On Facebook and Instagram, users can follow accounts like CBC. Every time CBC makes a post, the post will show up automatically on their follower’s feed. TikTok is different.
The For You Page — or FYP — is the first page that pops up on the screen when you open the app. The page is full of curated content for its users. It doesn’t matter who you follow, the algorithm chooses videos for you based on a number of factors, from your location to your interests and interactions.
Asmundson’s goal is to have 10,000 followers on CBC North’s TikTok page, but at the end of the day, he’d rather have a high engagement rate in views and reactions.
POV: you consume news on TikTok
Wil Doucette says he gets 85 per cent of his news on X; TikTok covers the remainder.
Doucette doesn’t follow news outlets on TikTok. Instead, he follows people who reiterate the news that he cares about: politics, law, public policy and pop culture.
“Most of the time, it’s going to be maybe like a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme song in the background, and it’ll be a person with this green screen of the news article behind them and then they’re talking through the article,” says Doucette. This is an example of explanatory journalism.
Trish Audette-Longo, an assistant professor of journalism at Carleton University, focuses on digital journalism. She looks at how Canadian news organizations navigate TikTok and how journalists present news on the app.
In 2022, Audette-Longo saw a lot of explanatory journalism on the platform, where the journalist is in the foreground explaining the news article behind them. That’s shifting, she says.
“We also see a second person address. Something along the lines of, ‘you might have heard that,’ ‘here’s what you could do,’ might be one of the sort of framing devices for those stories.”
Outlets that already convey the news, especially video-based and 24-hour news, tend to repackage stories for TikTok, says Audette-Longo.
According to the 2023 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, TikTok is among the top social media platforms used weekly to access news in Canada. The Leadership Lab’s survey shows that 30 per cent of Canadians between 16 and 23 identified TikTok as a news source.
“I’d rather just be able to watch it and listen to it, then actually have to sit there and read it,” says Zoe Marshall, a NSCAD University student in Halifax.
Marshall used to get news on Facebook and Instagram. Since Bill C-18, however, she gets most news on TikTok.
“TikTok is the only thing that tells me anything,” says Marshall.
She spends about an hour a day on TikTok, scrolling through her FYP. She also has her notifications turned on for accounts like CBC News and CTV. When they post, Marshall receives a notification on her phone.
Globally, close to 50 per cent of top news publishers post regular content on TikTok, according to a Reuters Institute report on how publishers distribute news on TikTok. In Canada, 55 per cent of top Canadian news publishers post regularly on the app.
Does TikTok pass the news vibe check?
TikTok wasn’t built for news.
Whether you trust the app or not, TikTok is a resource for news outlets because it offers a new way of telling captivating news stories in seconds. Primarily, it allows for conversation—even outside of TikTok.
“Tweets travel. They travel to the news, they travel to billboards, they travel to conversations and I think TikTok is doing the same right now,” says Hollett, who previously worked as head of news and government at Twitter. “Even if you don’t have an account on TikTok, or maybe you have questions around TikTok’s policy or something you’ve read in the news, you ultimately are still connected to the culture of TikTok, because it is reaching conversations, and it’s ending up on the news and it’s ending up on Instagram reels.”
TikTok’s future in Canadian news is uncertain, but when new opportunities for telling
compelling stories emerge, newsrooms will adapt to stay relevant with their audience.
“For those of us who’ve been in the industry for decades, it’s like, ‘Wow, what next?’” says Hollett. “What doesn’t change is the basics of how to tell an important story; that doesn’t change.”
About the author
Molly is originally from Digby, N.S. She's in her fourth year of the BJH program. She once covered a story about a murder; a murder of crows...