Will News Find a Home on YouTube?
With little original news reporting surfacing on this Web site, ‘perhaps an important lesson learned is that tools don't make a tradesman.’
The success of YouTube has amazed a media world already acclimated to the hyperbole of the Internet's developing traffic patterns. This free online hosting service for video clips established itself quickly as the leading platform for this next wave of personal online activity. By offering a quick and easy way for citizen videographers to post whatever they shoot, and with broadband access expanding, uploading video to YouTube is now as common as starting a Weblog. It's little wonder that Google, despite its own might, decided to simply buy YouTube rather than try to compete with it.
Millions of people have digital video cameras, either as stand-alone devices or as part of their digital cameras and cell phones. If a person is in the right place at the right time, what gets on video—and gets sent to YouTube—can entertain millions and/or it can propel a news story into the mainstream press. (Witness the person whose camera captured the campaign-stop remarks of Virginia Senator George Allen when he referred to a campaign worker affiliated with his opponent as "macaca.") And it was the South Asian tsunami in December 2004 and the London underground bombings in July 2005 that demonstrated the potential for video of significant events to be recorded by amateurs in ways that the mainstream media couldn't duplicate.
Such is the buzz about YouTube, at least, among new media proponents. In practice, however, it's hard to find examples of high-quality amateur news on YouTube. In fact, the majority of content on YouTube is fairly trivial. Most of the clips have nothing to do with news. What news is to be found on YouTube consists of clips recorded from mainstream news broadcasts and reproduced on the site; highlights from Jon Stewart's punditry on his satirical "Daily Show" rank high on the listing of what's popular. The standard fare seems focused mostly on gory voyeurism such as police shootings and footage of burning buildings, which appear occasionally in a raw, unedited format.
At times, however, videos show newsworthy events that have not found—and are likely not to find—their way to regular news reporting. For example, the actions of paramilitary groups in South America can be witnessed, and in one instance this fall, the posting of a video showing the sniper-like shooting to death of young Tibetan pilgrims on the Nangpa La Pass (at China's border with Nepal) by Chinese soldiers reverberated across other Web sites and into the press. Video images of these murders pushed the Chinese government to acknowledge the deaths; the official news service in China claimed the soldiers were "forced to defend themselves," yet the video clearly disputes this claim. It is certainly true that some videos are placed on YouTube by activists promoting their interests, yet the content can be interesting—and, at times, even significant—even if it is not a news report.
While it is true that most people will never witness anything as newsworthy as the London bombings, plenty of newsworthy events happen throughout the world each day. Yet such footage fails to show up on YouTube with any consistency. Does this indicate that YouTube might be another example of new media technology that has the power to transform newsgathering and news distribution but is, for whatever reason, failing to do so?
There have been trends like this before on the Internet. Free Web hosting services provided the opportunity to turn anyone—and everyone—into publishers, cheaply and easily. But when one looks at what's happened in that sphere, relatively few amateurs are taking the fork in the road that heads in the direction of reporting news. Blogging—the next big trend for online publishing—is even easier than the work involved in updating a Web page, but it has generated a stream of self-styled commentators and pundits. The majority of content in the blogosphere is uninspiring.
Perhaps an important lesson learned is that tools don't make a tradesman.
Why News Isn't on YouTube
A combination of factors appears to be preventing YouTube from delivering to its millions of viewers a cornucopia of clips from legions of citizen journalists. Digital video cameras might be cheap and accessible, but using them still requires skill and effort. Not everyone can hold the camera steady or compose a shot. Also, to state the obvious, the person holding the camera steady needs to be seeing something in the viewfinder that's worth recording. This requires the cameraperson to also have the ability to recognize that what he or she is seeing is newsworthy and why. In some cases—the London bombings, again, as an example—the event's news value will be evident to any witness, and whatever images are captured, no matter their quality, will be much in demand and viewed as news. In other circumstances, personal judgment might be called upon and technical prowess will matter.
Even without technical barriers, there is an entrenched social paradigm that can be hard to shake off: Journalism is regarded as an occupation for those trained in how to interview sources, gather information, and distribute it. It's not been perceived as a hobby or a recreational activity. In fact, increasingly those who do it have earned advanced degrees, often in the study of journalism. Newsgathering is therefore seen as work, not play, and creative expression has been viewed as better served through the arts, such as writing stories or painting.
There still appear to be plenty of amateur video reporters who aren't deterred by these factors. But they are not the ones who seem attracted to YouTube, where money does not exchange hands. For them, when footage is newsworthy, why not sell it to someone who wants to pay for it? Mainstream news organizations are a more attractive outlet; at the very least, going through this media offers more prestige.
Perhaps the sheer accessibility of YouTube acts as a deterrent. The mediocrity of its content could scare people away. Can something serious really sit alongside college party antics? And YouTube, as a site, seems only half-interested in attracting amateur news. It features a category vaguely entitled "News & Blogs," which collects content so haphazardly that much of it has no relation to the category's stated theme. YouTube's overseers do seem interested in policing the site for illegal or offensive content, but they aren't strict on enforcing categories. With so many videos being uploaded, this makes the site logistically challenging for an army of volunteers, and the result is that videos generally float amidst thousands of others, carried along like detritus in a fast-moving, constantly updated stream of material. It's easy for material with a potential of being watched by millions to get lost and attract only a few dozen viewers.
It also appears that the YouTube user community has, in its own way, defined what content on the site is really about. Most of the popular videos are focused on fun and frivolity, similar in format to the style used on the "Funniest Home Videos" television show. YouTube is for entertainment, like most television programming. The very use of the title "YouTube" implies a parallel to conventional broadcast television. The medium, and the message, have both been cloned.
YouTube has also placed limits on the length of videos that can be uploaded for free, a move that's ostensibly designed to prevent the site from being used for hosting pirated movies. But this can also make it difficult for a serious, lengthy report to be hosted on the site.
At some point in the future—and using this model—an online portal could establish a universal reputation as a source of quality news videos filed by the community at large. However, it does seem as though such an online experience would require close supervision of what's going on the site, and possibly some editing of it, similar to the way that editorial staff handle the content of conventional news publications. The way YouTube is set up right now, it's a warehouse and not a producer or editor. Without proper management, online amateur video is likely to remain as generally pointless as the home pages and blogs that preceded it.
Morris Jones is a lecturer in journalism at Deakin University, Australia.