Last year’s tsunami in Japan, the elections in Russia, and turmoil in the Middle East were the most popular topics for news watchers on YouTube in the 15 months that ended in March, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The group says that the Google-owned platform is beginning to become a major news source; in one third of the months in the study users searched for news terms more than anything else including entertainment. “The data reveal that a complex, symbiotic relationship has developed between citizens and news organizations on YouTube, a relationship that comes close to the continuous journalistic ‘dialogue’ many observers predicted would become the new journalism online,” Pew says. But it warns that videos often can’t be verified, or are copyrighted and used without permission, which “creates the potential for news to be manufactured, or even falsified, without giving audiences much ability to know who produced it or how to verify it.” Pew says that personalities don’t necessarily drive interest in news: At least 65% of the most-watched news clips didn’t feature an individual.
Although the length of YouTube news videos varies, the median length of the most-watched ones was 2 minutes and 1 second — far longer than local TV news, where stories average 41 seconds, but less than the network evening newscasts where they average 2 minutes and 23 seconds. By and large audiences look for the same kinds of stories online that they see on TV, led by disasters. But Pew adds that protests — the second most popular topic on YouTube — were not as closely tracked on network newscasts. What’s more, “four subjects that might be described as less strictly visual—foreign affairs, economics, health and business—were all subjects that received more coverage on the evening programs than they did attention on YouTube.”