WASHINGTON — One of the world's biggest and most important video news organizations employs no reporters or anchormen, owns no satellite trucks and doesn't even report the news itself.
In just seven years of existence, YouTube — which has made viral sensations out of cute baby videos and Justin Bieber music videos — has grown into an important source of news, drawing audiences that rival those of traditional TV news networks and creating "a new kind of visual journalism," according to a new study that assesses the site's role as an information provider.
The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that YouTube has enabled tens of millions of people worldwide to follow news events such as the Japanese tsunami, Middle East unrest and the killing of Osama bin Laden by creating their own "on demand" news agenda, watching developments unfold where and when they determine. Some news videos remained heavily viewed on YouTube for weeks, long after traditional news sources had moved on to other subjects.
Videos related to the 2011 tsunami and its aftermath were the most heavily viewed of any in YouTube's "news and politics" category tracked by PEJ during a 15-month period starting in January 2011. The 20 most-viewed tsunami videos collectively had 96 million views, said PEJ, a nonprofit group based in Washington.
Unlike a traditional news organization, which produces most of its own material or obtains it from other professional sources, YouTube features news videos that come from all over. Videos shot by TV news organizations (and often posted, without permission, by viewers) appear to be the largest source of the most-viewed material, accounting for just over half of the 260 videos that ranked among the most popular during the 15-month period PEJ examined. But "citizen-produced" videos — shot by eyewitnesses with video cameras or smartphones — accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total. The balance came from political parties and advocacy groups or from unidentified sources.