Top five takes from the Washington Post's TikTok experiment

From our seminar with Carmella Boykin, Associate Producer, Washington Post TikTok team
10th May 2023
13:00 - 14:00

The speaker

Carmella Boykin is part of the team that has pioneered the use of TikTok at the Washington Post. Previously, she was a local TV news reporter in Rochester, New York. The Washington Post's TikTok channel has 1.6 million followers and 74 million likes and has recently won three Webby Awards.

Why TikTok matters for journalism

  • With over a billion active users, TikTok has become a global phenomenon. It was the fastest-growing network in our Digital News Report 2022 survey, reaching 40% of 18–24s, with 15% using the platform for news.
  • Our research found around half (49%) of top news publishers are now regularly publishing content on TikTok 
  • However, the threat of a TikTok ban looms in the United States and beyond due to fears data could be accessed by the Chinese government (TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in Beijing).

Watch Carmella’s seminar

5 takeaways from Carmella’s talk and the discussion

1. Do short-form vertical video: it's a great way to diversify the audience that you're reaching. People are increasingly spending time watching vertical video content. If news outlets want to reach these people where they are, it makes sense to go on TikTok. “I think every news organisation should think, ‘How are we going to continue to reach people, especially as they continue to go more on these vertical platforms? Because are they watching TV all the time? Not necessarily. What are people's actual behaviours? Let's bring our content to them, so we can continue furthering our goals,’” Carmella said.


This week, internet users realized Blockbuster’s website had been revived with the words: “We are working on rewinding your movie.” It is not clear what Blockbuster has planned, or indeed, if there is anything in the works. A search on the Wayback Machine web archive indicates that the text is months old.

♬ original sound - MuchMusic

2. Be authentic to yourself and the platform you're on. Authenticity is the most effective way to connect with audiences on TikTok, Carmella said. “A lot of audiences are really privy to when they're being performed to versus when they're being told the story authentically. So there are a lot of journalists on TikTok that feel like they're just telling you a story and you're there with them and you're an equal. And I found even when we do content that's more serious broadcast-style or sitting at the desk or things like that, they don't necessarily connect as well.”


An AI pioneer quit Google to warn humanity of the tech’s existential threat. Computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton, who has made significant contributions to the development of artificial intelligence, is warning the world of the “existential risk” posed by AI systems to humans.

♬ I love you trending sound - CONTENT CREATION TIPS

3. Tell stories. Telling stories goes hand in hand with authenticity for TikTok success: it’s why people will happily watch videos of girls sitting in their cars talking about their days, Carmella said. For journalists, this aspect of making the transition to TikTok should come easily, as that is what journalists aim to do on any medium: “You're a storyteller if that's your gig, if that's your thing. You already know how to put together a story. So it's just figuring out how to tell it in a different way in a short form,” Carmella said.


Pres. Biden on Tuesday designated two new national monuments, making nearly 514,000 acres off-limits to development as part of his pledge to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

♬ original sound - JP ??

4. Find remixes and sped-up versions of popular TikTok songs. Accounts that have business verification, like the Washington Post, don’t have access to all of TikTok’s trending sounds. To get around this, Carmella has a burner account she uses to only follow DJs in order to find remixes or sped-up versions of popular songs she can then use to take part in a trend on the Washington Post’s account. Carmella uses minimal equipment to make TikToks: a green screen, a pancake light and a microphone, and she shoots with her iPhone. The videos are then edited in Premiere Pro and uploaded onto the TikTok app, where they add graphics.


The Biden Admin. has demanded Chinese owners sell the TikTok app, or risk a nationwide ban.

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5. You may be getting your content suppressed, it's hard to tell. Nobody outside of TikTok knows how their famous algorithm works, and creators can only guess how their content is being distributed, and whether any of it is being suppressed. Carmella advised trying to avoid trigger words that many on the platform suspect lead to suppression, such as ‘pandemic’ and ‘abortion’. However, she stressed that there is no real way to tell if content is being suppressed or not, and we should not trust anyone who claims they can tell for sure. 

The Washington Post team even carried out an experiment to see if they could get one of their videos suppressed, and it did not work out the way they expected.

“The idea was, whenever we say certain things on the platform, they tend to get suppressed. So when we're talking about the war in Ukraine, ‘war’ tends to get suppressed or saying ‘Ukraine’ sometimes gets suppressed, or literally any word that you could think of that could potentially be problematic or need some sort of trigger warning might get suppressed. So what would happen if we made two TikToks: one had all of those words in it and one had none of the words in it? And so we made the one that had all of the words in it, and it performed better than the TikTok that didn't have any of the words in it. Both of them have over a million views. And basically, what we learned is that we can't predict what's going on,” Carmella explained.


Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. granted the government’s request for a stay, but only until Wednesday, and asked for additional briefing from antiabortion groups by next Tuesday. The administrative stay does not forecast the court’s ultimate disposition of the case, which returned the issue to the high court less than a year after a landmark decision overturning the guarantee of abortion rights provided in Roe v. Wade.

♬ original sound - Jonas Brothers


More on TikTok:

  • Read our recent report on how news organisations are creating and distributing content on the platform. 
  • Read an interview with one of the founders of Ac2ality, one of the news accounts with most followers around the world. 
  • Read this article by Laura Oliver on how journalists are using TikTok in the Global South.
  • Read this piece about our seminar with Sophia Smith Galer. 

Read a live, automated transcript.

Part of our Global Journalism Seminars series.

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