Is YouTube putting journalists out of business?

Move over LOL cats. Viewers are increasingly  finding a new, less-frivolous use for YouTube – as a news source in times of emergencies and natural disasters.

In five of the 15 months in 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, says the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), the most searched term on YouTube was a news-related event.

This effect showed up particularly following the March 2011 earthquake in Japan which triggered a major tsunami. In the seven days following the disaster, says Pew, the 20 most viewed news-related videos on YouTube all focused on the tragedy, and were viewed more than 96 million times.

The most watched video of all came from what appeared to be fixed closed-circuit surveillance camera at the Sendai airport.

“News has found a place on this video-sharing platform and in ways that are opening up the flow of information and forging new areas of cooperation and dialogue between citizens and news outlets,” says PEJ deputy director Amy Mitchell.

While most of the footage was recorded by citizen eyewitnesses, much of it was actually posted by news organizations – although many didn’t credit the footage as such. As PEJ points out, YouTube’s guidelines on attribution often aren’t being followed.

“News organizations sometimes post content that was apparently captured by citizen eyewitnesses without any clear attribution as to the original producer. Citizens are posting copyrighted material without permission. And the creator of some material cannot be identified,” says Pew.

“All this 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.”

But while viewers may be turning to citizen journalists for information, there’s still a preference for footage that’s had some editorial input. More than half the most-viewed videos, 58 percent, involved footage that had been edited, and even 39 percent of the videos posted by citizens rather than news organizations was edited.

And, says Pew, news viewership on YouTube is probably still outpaced by the audience for news on conventional television worldwide. While those top 20 tsunami videos were viewed 96 million times worldwide the week of the disaster, for instance, more people almost certainly watched on local and national television around the globe. There’s hope for us hacks yet.