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Young audiences are turning to TikTok influencers for their news. What are the downsides?

Hannah Ritvo is a 2023-24  fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

When Josh Helfgott was a child, he didn’t see queer individuals in the mainstream media. 

“I felt so incredibly alone,” Helfgott said. “There was no LGBTQ+ representation in general. There were no gay people as far as I could see.” 

Helfgott now runs a TikTok account called “Gay News” that is dedicated to educating and informing a global audience about LGBTQ+ news, issues and history. 

He elevates stories he doesn’t think will get heard otherwise, platforming local news stories to over 5.5 million followers. 

Helfgott is just one of thousands of TikTok influencers who are using the platform to share news stories. These influencers aren’t the only ones – major news organizations, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, have also created their own TikTok accounts to reach new audiences. 

Americans are increasingly turning to TikTok to get their news. A 2023 Pew Research poll found more than 14% of U.S. adults say they regularly get news from TikTok, up from 3% in 2020. This trend is more pronounced among the younger generation, with a third of 18- to 29-year-olds regularly consuming news on TikTok. 

TikTok’s emergence as a global news source allows social media influencers to educate and mobilize individuals. However, it is crucial for social media users to understand the limitations of news presented in short form-videos and to establish a set of practices to verify and fact-check the information they encounter online. 

Why are people sharing news on TikTok? 

Although TikTok is a recent phenomenon, Stephanie Edgerly, a Northwestern University professor and Associate Dean of Research, said there is nothing new about having an influencer stand between audiences and the news media. 

“Audiences oftentimes need a person who they trust and they relate to that will take what journalists are covering and translate it in an accessible way,” said Edgerly, who adds that we have seen this occur before with bloggers and television correspondents. 

Edgerly researches news avoidance and how features of new media alter the way individuals consume news. 

Young people turn to TikTok and other social media sites for news consumption because they don’t feel the news is relevant to their lives, she said. Influencers are able to engage younger audiences by relating stories to their audiences and showing them what the stakes of news stories mean for them.

In general, Edgerly believes the mixing of news and entertainment is advantageous for many, because it provides an alluring way for individuals to engage with information. 

Younger audiences are able to easily and quickly consume news in a convenient, familiar space when they use TikTok. Many influencers translate the information they are sharing into entertaining, digestible and relatable short-form videos, which Edgerly said is particularly appealing for news avoiders. 

Michael Spikes, a Northwestern lecturer and co-founder of the Illinois Media Literacy Coalition, said social media apps like TikTok have helped democratize content. 

“In the past, we had gatekeepers who essentially chose what information could be published in certain outlets,” Spikes said. “We now hear many more perspectives than we used to, and many more points of views than we used to.” 

This diverse media ecosystem has allowed Josh Helfgott and other TikTok influencers to reach a wide audience. Helfgott said his TikTok account gives him the ability to share stories with audiences who wouldn’t otherwise hear it. 

“I’m floored, when I ask my audience to take an action, the quantity of people that do is astounding to me,” Helfgott said. “It’s really inspiring – it makes me believe I have the power to make some change in this world.” 

In addition to informing and educating users, TikTok influencers can also mobilize audiences.

“I’ve registered tons of people to vote,” Helfgott said. “We’ve had hundreds of thousands of signatures go to the FDA in regards to their blood ban against gay men donating blood, and [the FDA] did take action afterwards.”

After the FDA eased their restrictions on gay and bisexual men donating blood, Helfgott made a video thanking over 200,000 of his followers for signing a petition to ease restrictions. 

Ethical concerns

Despite these benefits, there is plenty to be wary about concerning news consumption via social media. Social media sites can easily contribute to the spread of misinformation and bias, and most come with a lack of ethical guidelines for creators.

Edgerly said TikTok influencers might not attribute their content or note where they are getting their information from.

“Should we be giving influencers the latitude and attention that we would provide to a journalist?” Edgerly asked. “Are we critiquing what is being shown? Do [TikTok influencers] have expertise and trust?”

Given that many users use TikTok and other social media sites as outlets for entertainment, users may be less inclined to scrutinize the information they consume.

Helfgott keeps this in mind when he creates his videos, following a strict process to ensure he is reporting ethically and accurately. He said distilling a complex story into a short time frame while maintaining accuracy can be hard.

“I spend hours and oftentimes days, writing and rewriting simple stories to get them into punchy, factual soundbites.”

Helfgott begins with extensive research, analyzing articles and videos from news organizations, before bulleting out the story’s major facts. He then weaves a narrative that grabs an audience’s attention, condensing longer articles into short, snappy stories that keep audiences engaged.

With younger audiences relying heavily on TikTok influencers and other social media sites for their news, some experts and journalists also worry about the impact on traditional news outlets.  

As the news industry faces a series of closures and layoffs, some journalists worry social media influencers are pulling readership and revenue away from traditional news outlets and even profiting from their work. 

Edgerly conducted a survey of journalists in which 79.3 percent of respondents said social media negatively impacts the journalism industry. More than 1,500 respondents completed the survey, and most believed social media platforms contribute to inaccurate and one-sided news accounts. 94.3 percent of respondents blamed social media for spreading inaccurate news. 

TikTok’s algorithm presents a whole other set of ethical concerns, Spikes said.

“We get a lot of information tailored to our own personal beliefs and values,” he said. “We don’t get lots of information that might challenge those views.” 

News organizations that have chosen to join TikTok to disseminate their news face ethical concerns, as well, including the risks presented by investing resources in platforms they can’t control. Edgerly said news organizations that took to similar platforms like Facebook and Twitter to share their work should understand the implications. 

“These companies are not guided by journalistic values,” Edgerly said. “They can change their algorithm and change what they’re promoting. You don’t want to be caught in that chasm.”

After studying media literacy for over 15 years, Spikes takes an “almost zero trust stance” toward the information he consumes on social media. Even so, he takes steps to verify the online information he does view, and he believes it important that all social media users take similar steps. 

“I try to self-curate sources that I know have educated themselves on a subject either by having lots of experience with it or reporting on it in the past,” said Spikes, who hopes the videos he watches will offer him context and evidence. 

As news consumption transforms with changing times, he believes it is critical that individuals on social media create healthy habits and practices. 

“It is becoming more and more important to know more about the ways that media can change and shape our perceptions of the world so we can continue to challenge what those things are.” 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Announcing our spring conference, “Journalism Ethics & the AI Challenge”


Center for Journalism Ethics hosting its spring conference, “Journalism Ethics & the AI Challenge,” with support from craig newmark philanthropies and the Evjue Foundation

Madison, Wisconsin – The Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will host its 15th annual journalism ethics conference at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on Friday, April 5, 2024, in Madison, Wisconsin. The conference is free, open to the public and made possible by generous sponsorships from craig newmark philanthropies and the Evjue Foundation. 

Called “Journalism Ethics & the AI Challenge,” the conference will bring together news media professionals, media innovators, academics, students and the public to address the ethical dilemmas that AI poses to the practice of journalism. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin will deliver a keynote address on the challenges of covering AI. 

In the past year alone, we’ve seen headlines about significant shake-ups at OpenAI, alarming headlines about AI risk, and executive orders on AI from the Biden Administration. The AI story has arrived. In newsrooms, AI is already being used, sometimes with positive impact, sometimes with a corrosive effect. AI is pushing the field of journalism to take on two enormous challenges simultaneously: establishing new standards of ethical journalistic practice and covering the impact of AI on society right now and in the near future. 

Expert panelists will take on subjects such as the evolving nature of fakes, frauds and disinformation in the era of AI, the potential for AI to reduce or amplify bias in the news, how professional standards of practice are attempting to meet the AI movement, how news organizations can put news values such as transparency, accountability and data privacy at the forefront of their AI practice and how labor issues intersect with AI. 

“Too much of the conversation about AI is dominated by idealists in one corner and catastrophists in the opposite corner,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics and director of the Center. “This conference will be essential in helping journalists and the public navigate the space between those poles. Ethics must be the center of our focus on AI and where we are heading.”

The Center for Journalism Ethics, housed in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison, provides an international hub for the examination of the role of professional and personal ethics in the pursuit of fair, accurate and principled journalism. The Center offers resources for journalists, educators, students and the public, including internationally recognized annual conferences exploring key issues in journalism.

craig newmark philanthropies supports groups that seek to defend values such as fairness, opportunity and respect and strengthen American democracy. The organization drives broad civic engagement by working to advance organizations focused on trustworthy journalism and the information ecosystem, voter protection, women in tech, and veterans and military families. Craig Newmark is the founder of craigslist. 

The Evjue Foundation is the charitable arm of The Capital Times newspaper. Since its founding in the 1960s, the Foundation has made grants totaling more than $70 million to worthy educational, cultural and charitable organizations in the newspaper’s circulation area. 

Additional sponsors include the MG&E Foundation, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and Wisconsin Watch. 

Registration is open and available here.

For more information, see the conference web page and/or contact Krista Eastman, administrator at the Center for Journalism Ethics, at

As copy desks vanish, ‘the stakes are higher’ for newsrooms

The economic realities of a changing industry have left journalists wearing the hats of both reporter and editor.

Every journalist remembers the mistakes that made it to print. 

But with the decline of the size and scope of the copy desk, a safeguard that could prevent errors from happening, reporters may find themselves with even more regrets. 

For former copy editor Elise De Los Santos, it’s a butchered headline about the Chicago Cubs opening day during her first few years at the Chicago Tribune that stands out. Reflecting back, she doesn’t recall the exact details or whether she added a word or cut one out, but she remembers finally playing with the headline enough to fit it into a single column on a page. 

“Only one person looked at it afterward,” said De Los Santos, now a lecturer at Northwestern University. “It ran, and it was wrong. I had to issue a correction.” 

Headshot of Elise De Los Santos
Elise De Los Santos

This is a universal experience. Mistakes happen. However, it becomes a real problem when it is repeated. 

“Mistakes in and of themselves are not ethical errors,” said Fred Vultee, an associate professor of journalism at Wayne State University. “Being dumb is an ethical error.” 

The economic realities of a shrinking industry have not preserved the traditional copy editing process, raising questions about what it means to have fewer people reading stories prior to publication. 

“I saw, almost in real time, [copy] editing go away, just because there weren’t enough bodies to do it,” De Los Santos said about her time at the Tribune. “It’s not like the paper got smaller overnight — there was still the same amount of work to do.” 

According to De Los Santos, more pressure is placed on reporters’ shoulders. 

“The stakes are higher,” she added. 

Headshot of Andy Bechtel
Andy Bechtel

Often, reporters and editors in the newsroom are taking on the jobs previously held by an entirely different person. This occurs in an already stressed industry where 70% of journalists have experienced work-related burnout, according to a study from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. Meanwhile, over a third of reporters say they experience job-related harassment and threats. 

“We’re all humans,” said Andy Bechtel, an associate professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We’re all going to make mistakes — no matter what. But when you’re stressed out and overworked, then you’re more likely to make a mistake.”

‘Guardians of accuracy’

Traditionally, copy editors served as the first true reader of a story. The editing process of a news story began with a reporter writing up their findings, working alongside their desk editor or even two. Then it would move along to a copy editor and back to the original editor — all before publication.  

Over the last several decades, however, the last set of eyes on the story at some outlets has disappeared. In 2017, the New York Times eliminated the copy desk. In August 2023, The Texas Tribune laid off its entire copy desk. 

Headshot of Merill Perlman
Merill Perlman

“Everyone who touches a story now has a vested interest,” said Merill Perlman, an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University and former director of copy at The New York Times. “They are not the disinterested party like the copy editor was.” 

Research completed by Vultee concludes that editing is associated with a higher perception of both quality and value among readers. However, he found  readers’ views of an outlet’s credibility and quality is not in the ticky-tacky details of The Associated Press Stylebook. 

“Readers don’t give a damn about that,” Vultee said. “Bad organization bothers them a lot more than an adverb in the middle of a compound verb. Missing obvious questions — lack of consistency from top to bottom — actually bothers people a lot.” 

During her time at the Tribune, De Los Santos said the paper began to integrate some features of the traditional copy desk into the audience desk. 

“Social media should get the same eyes and editing that was in the paper,” De Los Santos said. “It’s thinking about the evolution and how you take the skills of the copy desk to nitpick and comb through a story — and where else can you put it.” 

Although some newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times, have maintained the traditional copy desk, other outlets have shifted course. In 2019, the New York Times created a style and standards “flex” desk

“We are guardians of language, of accuracy, of fact-checking as editors,” Bechtel said. “If we do that, then we’ll build trust without readers.” 

‘Do more with even less’

Reporters, in many cases, are being asked to wear the hat of a copy editor, editor and reporter — all at once. 

“For reporters, it’s very much a case of [doing] more with even less,” Vultee said. 

Headshot of Fred Vultee
Fred Vultee

Aside from ensuring accuracy and consistency in reporting, he underscored the importance of bigger picture factors, such as community events that highlight media literacy as ways to cultivate trust with readers. But at a reporting level, Vultee, as well as Perlman and De Los Santos, recommend reporters take a step back before editing a story. 

“Training in self-editing would not replace the copy desk but make writers more self-aware,” Perlman said. “Read it in a different way than you wrote it.” 

In simple terms, this includes re-reading a story with an eye for structure, word choice, clarity, and grammar and style. Although not perfect, it does build in some of the independence of the traditional editing process, Vultee said. 

“That doesn’t replace the assembly line,” Vultee said. “It might be a way of building in some of what the assembly line did.” 

However, the reality as it stands puts reporters in a difficult spot. 

“There’s no way one person can cover all the bases,” De Los Santo added. “That’s why the structure of news rose the way it did.”

Sophia Vento is a 2023-24 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.