Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Citizen eyewitnesses provide majority of top online news videos in Oklahoma tornado disaster

In recent years, natural disasters around the world have been chronicled by a new kind of visual journalism, often produced by citizen eyewitnesses and posted to the video sharing site YouTube. These videos represent a way of “crowdsourcing” a dramatic breaking news event, frequently before professional journalists can arrive on the scene.

In the first 24 hours after the deadly tornado slammed into Moore, Okla. around 3 p.m. on May 20, these citizen journalists produced a majority of the most viewed YouTube videos that went viral after the tragedy.

According to a Pew Research search of videos connected to the disaster, in the 24 hours immediately after the tornado struck, the 10 most viewed YouTube videos of the event were seen a combined 1.8 million times. Seven of those 10 videos, ranging in length from 28 to 194 seconds, were shot by eyewitnesses unaffiliated with a news organization. The most popular one—which drew almost 600,000 views within the first 24 hours—was taken by a resident using his smartphone, followed closely by a video shot by a group of storm chasers.

In both of those videos, the camera owners can be heard shouting “Oh my God,” as the huge funnel cloud roars along its destructive path.

Pew Research’s examination of news-oriented YouTube videos in the past several years has found that natural disasters, with their frightening and powerful images, have consistently generated the most attention. Using a methodology that identifies the five most viewed news videos in a given week, our tracking has found that the most popular video in the first five months of 2013 was of the small asteroid that impacted the area around Chelyabinsk Russia on February 15. The once-in-a-century event, which injured an estimated 1,500 people, accounted for 17% of those top videos. Next, at 14%, were videos connected to the April 15 Boston marathon terror attack. (On YouTube, it is up to the person posting the video to choose the category of each post on the site. Pew Research examines the most popular videos in the “news & politics” category of YouTube.)

In an earlier Pew Research report that monitored YouTube news videos from January 2011 through March 2012, another horrific natural disaster generated the most interest in that period. It was the earthquake and tsunami that struck the Northeastern Coast of Japan on March 11, 2011 and killed more than 18,000 people. In the seven days following that tragedy, the 20 most viewed news-related YouTube videos were all devoted to that subject. And combined, they were viewed more than 96 million times.

With the growth of smartphones and technology advancement in online video, citizen journalists’ role in chronicling major events has grown. Almost 40% of the most watched news videos in the 15 months from January 2011 through March 2012 came directly from citizens. Even some of the videos bearing the logo of a news organization were originally shot by citizen onlookers, a sign of today’s new kind of professional/amateur news partnership.