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Oct. 12, 2023, 10:30 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

The news will not find you on TikTok

Plus: The “labor” of avoiding news, a study of disagreements between journalists and their bosses about objectivity, and the effects of Trump’s criticisms of Fox News.

Editor’s note: Longtime Nieman Lab readers know the bylines of Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis. Mark wrote the weekly This Week in Review column for us from 2010 to 2014; Seth’s written for us off and on since 2010. Together they’ve launched a monthly newsletter on recent academic research around journalism. It’s called RQ1 and we’re happy to bring each issue to you here at Nieman Lab.

Given the amount of attention TikTok has swallowed up from anyone under the age of 30, we might expect it to be a more obsessive focus of news organizations in their efforts to attract younger and more engaged audiences. But TikTok has shown itself to be rather inhospitable to news: It removes links that publishers could use to pull users out of the app, it does little to label news or help users evaluate its credibility, and unlike other apps, it’s offered few financial incentives to news publishers (though note a couple of exceptions).

It’s not inevitable that TikTok is hostile terrain for news. Researchers have found that algorithmic recommendation systems like TikTok could effectively wall people off from news content — the often-voiced “filter bubble” concern — but they could also increase the chances that people are incidentally exposed to news while looking for other things.

So which of these effects does TikTok’s algorithm have? And how does news fare amid the sea of content that washes over a typical TikTok user? It’s difficult to answer those questions definitively, because TikTok doesn’t make its API available to researchers, and the algorithmic experience varies widely among users. But in a new study in the journal New Media & Society, researchers Nick Hagar (now a New York Times data scientist) and Nicholas Diakopoulos of Northwestern University found a few clever ways to look at news’ role in TikTok’s algorithm.

First, they looked at recommended accounts, starting with four prominent U.S. news organizations’ TikTok accounts and scraping several degrees of suggested accounts to follow, resulting with 10,000 recommended accounts after several iterations. Then they simulated TikTok’s personalized For You Page experience with 60 bots programmed to detect and then determine whether to watch or skip videos based on their transcripts’ overlap with that day’s New York Times headlines. The bots were programmed with varying levels of news interest and were collectively served up more than 6,500 videos. They also scraped daily trending hashtags for a week and looked at metrics for more than 100 US news accounts.

The verdict? TikTok is a news wasteland. Out of the bots’ 6,568 videos, just 6(!) could be classified as news — and those were two different videos shown multiple times. Those dismal results came even though some of those bots were extremely news-interested. “The For You Page algorithm surfaces virtually no news content, even when primed with active engagement signals,” the authors concluded.

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The recommended accounts were equally bleak for news. Even after seeding TikTok with four professional news orgs’ accounts, just 18% of the recommendations they received were news-related. For comparison, they tried the same exercise but seeded the recommendations with American football-related accounts, and got 88% football-related recommendations. Hagar and Diakopoulos reasoned that the disparity may have occurred because there aren’t enough news publishers to saturate TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, or perhaps because the algorithm may not recognize news producers as a coherent cluster of accounts.

Of the 700-plus trending hashtags collected, just one — #breakingnews — was news-related, and that was both not prominent and also contained a good amount of misinformation and comedy videos. Hashtags were heavy on entertainment and pop culture, something reflected in the study’s sample of videos more broadly — a lot of content that might seem like news (“Scary 911 calls…”) but isn’t.

What was concerning about the results was that the algorithm only just barely responded to an expressed news interest by its virtual users. In other words, if you want to see news on TikTok, you have to push hard against the tide of the algorithm. “The experience of news avoidance on TikTok,” Hagar and Diakopoulos wrote, “seems to happen almost by default as a matter of design.”

The authors contrasted that dynamic with recent Pew research finding that a third of adult TikTok users say they regularly get news there. That dissonance, they said, could be because users are actively seeking news out — via the search bar, for example — or because they define news much more broadly (including, say, entertainment and influencer gossip) than journalists might. Either way, they concluded, many of its users seem to be employing it for current events, however they define them, while TikTok’s priorities have steered away from news and framed the app instead as purely entertainment-focused. News organizations, it seems, are trapped — drawn to the place where more and more users are getting news, but largely unable to reach those users through TikTok’s algorithm.

Research roundup

“‘I use social media as an escape from all that’: Personal platform architecture and the labor of avoiding news.” By Kjerstin Thorson and Ava Francesca Battocchio, in Digital Journalism. There’s growing concern about how young people access news, if they get news at all. About 40% of those ages 18-24 report relying mainly on social media for news, but studies suggest that many young adults come across virtually no news at all in their everyday lives. So, what exactly are their information practices, and what do those approaches indicate about the future of news?

The authors here studied the work — the labor, if you will — that confronts young people as they struggle “to build and maintain media repertoires that include multiple platforms, each of which affords unique ways of organizing audiences, content exposure, and the possibilities for publicity and privacy.”

In a word, it’s tricky. Through 50 in-depth interviews with 18- to 34-year-olds in the U.S., “including a shared reading of participants’ most-used social media platforms,” the researchers describe the particular challenges facing young adults as they navigate and manage “public” and “private” spaces online. For one thing, these labors are constrained in part by the architectures of the platforms themselves, and the complicated nature of the efforts involved can end up making it hard for young people to engage with news content — even if that’s an unintended or incidental outcome.

They find that young adults are “active architects of their own media worlds,” both across and within platforms. “We propose the concept of personal platform architecture as a framework through which to analyze these everyday labors,” they write, “arguing that seeing young adults as active builders toward an idealized personal media environment helps to clarify why news engagement among this cohort remains elusive.”

“‘I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity’: A study of disagreements between journalists and editors, and what they tell us about objectivity.” By Magda Konieczna and Ellen Santa Maria, in Journalism Studies. Objectivity is often what comes to mind when people think of what’s expected of journalists, particularly in the U.S. For decades, objectivity has been considered even “the chief occupational value of American journalism.” But it’s also a hotly contested issue within journalism at the moment, as critics — inside and outside the journalism profession alike — point to objectivity’s shortcomings, from uncritically upholding the status quo to engendering false equivalence and “a view from nowhere” in news coverage. How can we get a peek into these debates and where they are going?

This study looks at cases when journalists tried to sidestep reporting norms, managers pushed back with reprimands, and firings or removals from coverage ensued. In the tug-of-war between journalists and their bosses, researchers found that “journalists most often raised issues around ideas of objectivity, neutrality, and truth, while managers were concerned about bias and advocacy.” This division, the authors found, was part of a “deep-seated disagreement on what objectivity is, and how and even whether to practice it.”

Some assume that how journalists represent minority or marginalized groups will improve as newsroom staffs become more diverse. But, based on their reading of these cases, the authors were led to conclude that “a diverse newsroom is not enough. It is obvious from these cases that minority reporters need and deserve more space to express what they see as common-sense insights that speak to their communities.”

They further suggest that it’s time for a major debate on the future of objectivity and neutrality — “perhaps publicly with a body such as the Society of Professional Journalists, or privately within newsrooms…Editors and publishers need to stop fearing this discussion and start preparing for it.”

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“The effects of elite attacks on copartisan media: Evidence from Trump and Fox News.” By Allison M. N. Archer, in Public Opinion Quarterly. Populist politicians in a number of countries — think: Trump in the U.S., Le Pen in France, and Bolsonaro in Brazil — have made vociferous critiques of the mainstream press a calling card of their anti-elite rhetoric.

“But such leaders,” as this study notes, “have not limited their criticisms to mainstream media, particularly in the U.S. context.” Most notably, there was Trump’s anger at Fox News after the channel called the 2020 election for Biden, which led to a discernible decline in Republications’ trust in Fox News. And, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has criticized the Washington Post and MSNBC for what he felt was unfair coverage of corporations and biased treatment against him.

These are attacks, Archer writes in this study, against copartisan news — that is, news sources that are supposedly friendly toward partisans in one direction or another. It matters, then, to “examine whether and how elite rhetoric might guide individuals toward some partisan outlets and away from others.”

Through a content analysis of tweets from 2017 to 2020, Archer found that then-President Trump increasingly went after Fox News during that period on the platform formerly known as Twitter. That dialed-up rhetoric correlated over time with declines in Fox’s daytime and prime-time ratings.

Then, using two survey experiments to investigate how people respond to this kind of intraparty feuding, the study showed, perhaps surprisingly, that Trump’s rhetoric influences both Republicans and Democrats.

“Republicans view Fox as less conservative and more critical of Trump when exposed to his critiques of the outlet,” the author writes. “However, Republicans do not change their viewing habits until Trump promotes an alternative to Fox like OANN.”

And the Democrats in the study? They responded to Trump’s criticisms by updating their views of Fox’s ideology and coverage — and they had a greater willingness to watch Fox, both on its own and in relation to alternative partisan media like OANN.

In all, the study suggests that “elite rhetoric is instrumental in shaping views of and demand for partisan outlets among members of both parties and can elevate more ideologically extreme sources among followers. Thus, elite rhetoric serves as a meaningful cue for individuals navigating an increasingly fragmented partisan media landscape.”

Speaking of cues

“Shortcuts to trust: Relying on cues to judge online news from unfamiliar sources on digital platforms.” By Amy A. Ross Arguedas, Sumitra Badrinathan, Camila Mont’Alverne, Benjamin Toff, Richard Fletcher, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, in Journalism. By many accounts, there is a crisis of trust in journalism, as presumably anyone reading this newsletter is well aware. But while many scholars and observers have sought to explore potential solutions to the low levels of confidence in news that many consumers express around the world, there is relatively little evidence about what strategies might actually work (is it engaged journalism? transparency? something else?).

In particular, there is a gap in understanding what this picture looks like from the ground up: that is, “how audiences make judgments about the trustworthiness of news in everyday life.” That’s what this study addresses by analyzing interviews and focus groups conducted with 232 people in four countries (Brazil, India, the U.K., and the U.S.). The goal: to assess how these media users make sense of the trustworthiness of news when they encounter an unfamiliar source — which is a frequent reality for many of us when getting news via social media feeds. The researchers interviewed people in a way that allowed them to “observe in real-time how people formulate judgements about sources on three of the most used platforms for news — Facebook, Google, and WhatsApp.”

The study found that people relied heavily on “in-the-moment mental ‘shortcuts’ to efficiently judge the trustworthiness of news.” These cues, or heuristics, tended to be of three varieties: content cues (such as information featured in news snippets, including its presentation in tone, appearance, etc.), social cues (e.g., shares, comments, likes, friend/follower dynamics), and platform cues (e.g., the order in which an item is ranked or how it’s labeled by the platform).

Across the four countries, these cues were consistent to one degree or another — but differences did show up when looking at distinct platforms. “Whereas images or the tone of headlines were important in all cases, for example, specific user metrics acquired prominence on social media, where such information is made plainly visible,” the authors write. “This underscores how platform affordances may activate varying heuristics with regards to news.”

“Consumer trust in AI–human news collaborative continuum: Preferences and influencing factors by news production phases.” By Steffen Heim and Sylvia Chan-Olmsted, in Journalism & Media. Let’s consider another study of trust, from a rather novel and timely angle: How readily are consumers willing to trust the use of artificial intelligence in changing how news is produced and distributed?

For this article, Heim and Chan-Olmsted used a national survey of U.S. adults to examine consumer attitudes and preferences about the role of AI in the main news production phases of discovery/information gathering as well as writing/editing, in addition to capturing how various factors might influence trust in such scenarios.

“Our research showed that while participants generally prefer lower levels of AI integration into both phases of production, news trust and usage intention can even increase as AI enters the production process — as long as humans remain in the lead,” the authors write.

The study found interesting differences worth noting. For example, consumers more interested in opinion or community-oriented content appeared to have stronger feelings about the use of AI in news production and lower tolerance for AI involvement. Meanwhile, people who sought informational or entertainment-based fulfillment from news “were more open to the presence of AI in the news process.”

Additionally, the researchers discovered that consumers with strong motivations for news use “tended to prefer the traditional, human-centric mode of news production, while consumers with less involvement (i.e., weak news usage motivations) were either more open to changes in or cared less about the integration of such technology into the news process.”

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash.

POSTED     Oct. 12, 2023, 10:30 a.m.
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