Lots of people watch YouTube for funny viral videos and make-up tutorials. But a large percentage of Americans also rely on YouTube for news.
A new study from found that YouTube channels are an integral source of news and information for more than a quarter of all adults in the U.S. While that’s certainly a lot of people tuning into YouTube for news, perhaps this isn’t too shocking as the platform is the second most-trafficked search engine in the world right after its sister company Google. People treat YouTube as an information source, except they’re looking for video instead of text.
However, what may be shocking is that mainstream news media organizations don’t account for anywhere near the bulk of what viewers are consuming. In fact, the study found that roughly half of those who get their news from YouTube watch independent channels. And, of all those people who use YouTube to get up to date on current events, a whopping 72 percent of them say the platform is either an important or the most important source for their news.
First, the good news. Independent media on YouTube often covers issues and topics that may get ignored by the mainstream press. And it’s often complementary and helps viewers better understand the issues.
The Pew study found that 66 percent of those who watch YouTube videos for news say it helps them understand current events better. It also found that “68 percent say the videos keep their attention and that they typically watch closely, rather than playing them in the background.”
That’s great news for creators as well. There’s clearly an audience for independent media on YouTube. The study found that the most popular YouTube news channels are “personality-driven,” meaning the content is centered around an on-camera host, similar to The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
When it comes to independent media, YouTube personalities are even more instrumental to a channel’s success. A majority, 70 percent, of the most popular channels are personality-driven. The Pew study provided Kyle Kulinski’s left-leaning Secular Talk channel and Mark Dice’s right-wing channel as two examples.
But here is the part of the study that is alarming. A bit more than half of YouTube news consumers prefer opinion and commentary over straight factual reporting. That’s fine if viewers know and understand what they’re watching. In fact, to get a rounded view and understand different opinions. But, the Pew study found that only 12 percent of YouTube news channels openly identify their ideological slant. This means viewers can be taking in biased, partisan content without realizing it.
Republicans surveyed by Pew said that censorship, demonetization, and political bias are very big problems on the platform. Democrats, however, find that misinformation and harassment are the largest concerns with YouTube.
Even more alarming: out of thousands of videos analyzed from the top 100 independent YouTube news channels, 21 percent of them mentioned at least one conspiracy theory. The most discussed right now? .
Compared to independent YouTube news sources, discussion of conspiracy theories on mainstream news channels is practically nonexistent. It should be noted that some videos from independent channels could be debunking conspiracy theories. But not all of them are, a problem considering YouTube’s with conspiratorial content and misinformation.
Unsurprisingly, the study found that videos covering President Donald Trump’s administration made up the bulk of news content both published and viewed.
The demographics among those surveyed also reflect how many already view the YouTube politics and news audience: mostly white and male. They are also very young, with 71 percent of viewers under 50, and 34 percent under 30 years old. However, the study did note how YouTube news consumers are more racially diverse than the U.S. adult public at large.
The poll’s biggest takeaway, in my opinion, is just how successful independent news is on YouTube despite some of the company’s actions to surface mainstream outlets. For example, in order to fight misinformation, YouTube implemented a system that “authoritative” outlets. If a particular story or current event starts trending on YouTube, search results for those terms will pull up mainstream outlets such as NBC News or Fox Business.
Despite that huge leg up for mainstream media, independent news on YouTube is still thriving.