NEWS published on 23 Mar 2023

“Learn from content creators how they create engaging content”

Interview with Sophia Smith Galer by Dr Alexandra Borchardt, Lead Author of the EBU News Report 2023: Climate Journalism That Works – Between Knowledge and Impact

Sophia Smith Galer is a senior news reporter, book author, and TikTok creator working for Vice World News. With her reporting, much of it on issues around social justice, reproductive health, and environmental damage, she has attracted more than 450,000 followers on social media. Her videos have been watched more than 130 million times.

You are a news reporter using TikTok and Instagram as your major platforms. How important are posts around climate change for you?

I am a general news reporter, but climate justice and climate action are very important topics for younger audiences. I did TikToks at COP26 in Glasgow, showing interesting protests, for example. I used the opportunity to highlight the record of COP26 sponsors, these were almost exclusively companies with poor climate records. The climate stories I have done since then were mostly about wrongdoing. I recorded when local or national authorities were not doing what they should be doing. The online space around the climate crisis is very active and vital.

For your climate journalism TikToks you went to a polluted beach in Italy and a site in the UK where trees had died that were planted as part of a compensation scheme. Would you call this investigative reporting?

The kind of journalism I do emphasizes wrongdoing, holding power to account. This is different to previous roles I held. In my personal TikToks I tend to focus on solutions journalism.

For those who are not familiar with the platform, could you describe a little bit what kind of journalism works best on TikTok and how, if so, it sets itself apart from activism?

There isn't one kind of journalism that does better on there than the other—but you'd expect it to be delivered in a journalistic manner with rigorous research and the principles of journalism ethics rather than a lobbying one or directing users to do something, which is what you tend to see more with activism videos.

You used to work for the BBC. Do you have advice for established organizations?

I helped to pioneer this kind of TikTok journalism in the UK. Getting eyeballs on climate coverage is a pertinent struggle. With videos the pressure is to find something good. But there is material out there. Sewage in rivers works well, for example. And then there is the technical thing: If a newsroom wants any of their coverage to be watched, they have to pivot to vertical video. The whole internet is turning to vertical video. And they should also add text, because then a lot more people engage with it.

What do traditional media get wrong?

I am on Insta and TikTok because audience needs are there. It is one thing just being there and another being native and organic on there. You need to own this space. I have learned what I learned from having a personal account. What works well is when journalists are creating communities around their reporting, around their beats. Everything cross-pollinates. But for traditional media, it will only work if other things get deprioritized which is still TV in most broadcasters. TV and radio always get priority to digital.

Is this why you left the BBC?

Vice is an online newsroom, that makes it easier. All in all, I have more than 450,000 followers on different channels. They all met me for different reasons. I have been building trust with them on my personal following because I have been holding power to account. You need an appetite to do that. Loads of journalists don’t see the existential need to serve young audiences.

How do you screen new platforms to decide whether this could work?

Definitely early adoption. Do it as soon as possible, learn how to do this. Don’t follow other journalists on these platforms, follow content creators and see how they create engaging content for their audiences. People don’t come to Insta to follow journalists, for example.

You are tackling a broad array of topics. Is it more important to master a platform than to specialize in a particular beat to attract a large following?

No. It is just the way I like to do my work.

What about the climate issue: How does it fare in terms of likes and engagement compared to the other areas and topics you are covering?

I think it does roughly the same as my general content.

Are you personally invested in the climate issue?

I am massively invested in climate as a consumer. I don’t drive and I hope to spend my life not driving. I try to be a pescatarian at home. I fly a lot and I feel very guilty about it. But I have to do it to bear witness.