A new study has found that YouTube is emerging as a major platform for news, one to which viewers increasingly turn for eyewitness videos in times of major events and natural disasters.
The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism on Monday released their examination of 15 months of the most popular news videos on the Google Inc.-owned site. It found that while viewership for TV news still easily outpaces those consuming news on YouTube, the video-sharing site is a growing digital environment where professional journalism mingles with citizen content.
“There’s a new form of video journalism on this platform,” said Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “It’s a form in which the relationship between news organizations and citizens is more dynamic and more multiverse than we’ve seen in most other platforms before.”
More than a third of the most-watched videos came from citizens. Than more half came from news organizations, but footage in those videos sometimes incorporated footage shot by YouTube users.
The Japanese earthquake and tsunami was the most-viewed news event during the length of the study, which spanned January 2011 to March 2012. The top videos from Japan included footage from surveillance cameras, a news network and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel — a typical variety of sources.
Such dramatic events were often among the most watched videos. Other popular news events included the Russian elections, unrest in the Middle East, the collapse of a fair stage in Indiana and the crash of an Italian cruise ship.
“One of the things that emerges here is the power of bearing witness as a part of a news consumption process,” said Mitchell. “Many of the most viewed stories that we’re looking at here have real powerful imagery around them.”
Key findings from the report as cited by Pew:
- The most popular news videos tended to depict natural disasters or political upheaval-usually featuring intense visuals. With a majority of YouTube traffic (70%) outside the U.S., the three most popular storylines worldwide over the 15-month period were non-U.S. events. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami was No. 1 (and accounted for 5% of all the 260 videos), followed by elections in Russia (5%) and unrest in the Middle East (4%).
- News events are inherently more ephemeral than other kinds of information, but at any given moment news can outpace even the biggest entertainment videos. In 2011, news events were the most searched term on YouTube four months out of 12, according to YouTube’s internal data: the Japanese Earthquake, the killing of Osama bin Laden, a fatal motorcycle accident, and news of a homeless man who spoke with what those producing the video called a “god-given gift of voice.” Yet over time certain entertainment videos can have a cumulative appeal that will give them higher viewership.
- Citizens play a substantial role in supplying and producing footage. More than a third of the most watched videos (39%) were clearly identified as coming from citizens. Another 51% bore the logo of a news organization, though some of that footage, too, appeared to have been originally shot by users rather than journalists. (5% came from corporate and political groups, and the origin of another 5% was not identified.)
- Citizens are also responsible for posting a good deal of the videos originally produced by news outlets. Fully 39% of the news pieces originally produced by a news organization were posted by users. (The rest of the most popular news videos of the last 15 months, 61%, were posted by the same news organizations that produced the reports.) As with other social media, this has multiple implications for news outlets. Audiences on YouTube are reshaping the news agenda, but they are also offering more exposure to the content of traditional news outlets.
- The most popular news videos are a mix of edited and raw footage. Some pundits of the digital revolution predicted that the public, free to choose, would prefer to see video that was unmediated by the press. The most viewed news videos on YouTube, however, come in various forms. More than half of the most-viewed videos, 58%, involved footage that had been edited, but a sizable percentage, 42%, was raw footage. This mix of raw and edited video, moreover, held true across content coming from news organizations and that produced by citizens. Of videos produced by news organizations, 65% were edited, but so were 39% of what came from citizens.
- Personalities are not a main driver of the top news videos. No one individual was featured in even 5% of the most popular videos studied here-and fully 65% did not feature any individual at all. Within the small segment of popular videos that are focused on people, President Barack Obama was the most popular figure (featured in 4% of the top videos worldwide). These ranged from speeches posted in their entirety to satirical ads produced by his political opponents.
- Unlike in traditional TV news, the lengths of the most popular news videos on YouTube vary greatly. The median length of the most popular news videos was 2 minutes and 1 second, which is longer than the median length of a story package on local TV news (41 seconds) but shorter than the median length on national network evening newscasts (2 minutes and 23 seconds). But the variation in the length of the YouTube videos stands out even more. While traditional news tends to follow strict formulas for length, the most popular news videos on YouTube were fairly evenly distributed-from under a minute (29%), one to two minutes (21%), two to five minutes (33%) and longer than five (18%).
Concerns, Encouragement for News Outlets
The results depicted both reasons for concern and encouragement for traditional news outlets. While citizen journalism accounts for a large slice of viewership on YouTube, its users are also eager distributers of professional news video. The study shows YouTube as a global news arena where professional and amateur video bleed together, and is made consumable in on-demand style.
That kind of atmosphere also makes for issues of authenticity. Though YouTube has guidelines for news video, they aren’t always followed and some videos go viral despite uncertain sources.
“This is a young platform and there’re certainly aspects of this interplay and the way information is going to flow that’s still being worked out,” said Mitchell.
A relatively nascent new organization, Russia Today, a network founded in 2005 and backed by the Russian government that often reports rumor, had easily the most videos among the most-viewed. The second most-viewed news organization among the top videos was Fox News, although the study pointed out that more than half of those videos were posted in criticism of the network.