Friday, August 27, 2010

My Experience on the YouTube News Feed

Earlier this year, YouTube approached the University of California Berkeley School of Journalism, where I was then a graduate student, with a question: how could we better understand the news ecosystem on YouTube? And how can we assess the footage that is uploaded to YouTube everyday by “citizen reporters,” particularly as a source for professional journalists to use in their reporting? They asked my fellow classmate Anna Bloom and me to launch an experiment called the News Feed. The goal was to discover and highlight breaking news footage on YouTube and see how valuable it could be to media organizations and news consumers. In the process, we wanted to figure out how YouTube functioned as a news source and how well the site enabled people to discover breaking news clips quickly and efficiently.

For the last three months, we’ve been examining the algorithms that surface the hundreds of thousands of videos uploaded to YouTube everyday, in search of valuable news footage that is visually compelling, timely, and shot by non-professional journalists. On, we’ve posted hundreds of clips documenting everything from forest fires in Russia to riots in California to sharks on the Jersey Shore.

Today is my last day on this project, and I wanted to share some of my reflections on what I found.

Content Breakdown

Early on, we decided to look primarily at stories of national or international interest. Lots of local news events are recorded by YouTube users every day, but only a few are relevant to a broad audience of journalists. We wanted to highlight citizen or amateur footage that could contribute to the day’s headlines, while also hoping to discover important stories that weren’t being reported by the mainstream media. We identified several news categories we thought YouTube users were already capturing: weather events, protests, accidents and disasters, political gaffes, misuses of authority, and fighting and unrest. We didn’t exclude other newsworthy events, but these are the staples of television news and are in the “sweet spot” for citizen reporters.

We noticed a lot of our content was posted by users outside the US (In fact, 70% of YouTube traffic comes from outside the United States). We found lots of interesting content from Russia for some reason, very little from Africa and almost nothing from China, where the site is blocked. This summer, 48.8% of our CitizenTube posts were based on clips from international users, while 51.2% were from US users.

Here’s a breakdown of precisely what we published on the site:

Protest/Riots: 14%
Environment/Weather: 13%
International Conflict: 10%
Accidents: 10%
Fire: 9%
Floods: 8%
Political Gaffes: 7%
Bizarre Animals: 6%
Police: 3%
Sports: 3%
Rescues: 2%
Animal Rights: 1.5%

It comes as no surprise that the greatest number of posts related to protests or riots: events that involve large crowds of people, where you can expect someone will whip out a cell phone camera if something newsworthy happens. (See also these clips from the Love Parade panic and the Venezuela train trapping.) In addition, YouTube users show little fear in tackling controversial topics: the effects of global warming, the meaning of Islam in America, and Mid East land conflicts among them. Without the influence of editors, lawyers, shareholders, or any of the traditional constraints of journalism, these videos sometimes represented views more extreme than those usually heard in the mainstream media. Sometimes the content existed only to communicate a very specific point of view, whether it was convincing tourists to visit a contaminated beach, or persuading people that a certain brand of politics is misguided. “Activist reporting” is alive and well on YouTube.

In my experience this summer, though, I found that most people just wanted to share a great story with the world: to let other people know what’s happening where they live. For example, the man who filmed the images of the Airblue plane crash in Pakistan, Muhammad Saqib Sultan, told me he heard about the accident on TV, then hopped on his motorbike and drive more than ninety minutes to reach the site, in the thick, jungled hills above Islamabad, just to see it for himself and make a record of it. Oftentimes these citizen reporters are happy to document places that professional reporters are unable to visit.

The localized nature of these videos gives them a special kind of credibility. Almost all of the clips we featured this summer were shot by people who live near the scene of the event they depicted. They know their communities well, which sets them apart from journalists who parachute into the site of breaking news and are expected to master local intricacies in a short period of time. Who better than citizen reporters to know when something is out of place or unjust in their own backyards?

Citizen reporting is only going to grow as more of the world gets access to affordable, mobile video equipment and broadband Internet. In a way, YouTube users could be seen as the world’s largest news-gathering unit, uploading content from around the globe 24 hours a day. Both sides -- citizens and the professional media -- have something to gain from this. In a shrinking news environment, where media corporations are trying to do more with less, amateur video footage complements the work of professional reporters, who provide the necessary background, context and narrative to the raw footage. Citizens get recognition for their work, help shape the way their communities are covered, and in the future, might get some form of compensation from a “news marketplace.” Many innovative organizations are already experimenting with such models.

Just as the nature of citizen reporting will continue to evolve, so will So keep an eye on it for new developments from YouTube’s News and Politics team, and of course, for more amazing stories captured by YouTube users around the world.


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