Learning to live with YouTube
Raw footage has immediacy. It can ignite revolutions, but it can also violate persons in savage ways. And it is aiding a coarsening of what passes for news,
says SEVANTI NINAN
Saturday, Jul 21 15:39:32, 2012
(A slightly different version of this column appeared in Mint, July 19, 2012)
The Guwahati incident was unfolding about the same time that the Pew Research Center in Washington DC released the findings of a 15-month study of what people watch most on YouTube. In 2011, news events were the most searched term on YouTube in four months out of 12. The study concluded that this video sharing site was now the world’s most popular single news source.
The percentage of Internet users who use video sharing sites climbed from 33 per cent in 2006 to 66 per cent in 2010, and citizens played a substantial role in producing and supplying the footage. Thirty nine per cent of the most watched news videos in 2011-2012 came from citizens. (That doubtless includes Mr Abhishek Singhvi’s driver.) And 61 per cent of this was raw footage.
Footage from news organisations constituted the balance of news accessed, but here by contrast 35 per cent was raw, 65 per cent edited. What Pew did was to look at the top five videos each week between January 2011 and March 2012, and it found that the most popular news videos were a mix of edited and raw footage. The study says raw footage is now part of a newsroom’s toolset. Primarily because YouTube as a platform enables its access.
So lets look at what the emergence of YouTube as a news site and news source means in terms of raw footage gaining primacy over edited visual news. It means there is a terrific resource out there at times of disasters, and breaking political news. For both news organisations and citizen viewers. In the period under survey the Japanese earthquake and tsunami was No. 1 with 5% of all the 260 videos watched), followed by elections in Russia (5%) and unrest in the Middle East (4%).
Yet newsrooms now face a dilemma arising from the new technologies. if 9/11 had happened ten years later scores of handycam videos would have been on YouTube. And it would not have been easy for newsrooms to take the same decision they did back in 2001 of protecting the dignity of the dead by keeping the gore out. The existence of YouTube has changed the game. Footage becomes more potent because of this platform. It makes going viral possible. Including those of a dead Gaddafi or a Saddam Hussain whose gory pictures can be paraded on the news.
It also spells an emerging news culture which is being shaped by easy access to technology. Audience- seeking news organisations are increasingly willing to convert lurid excesses filmed and uploaded by their own reporter or somebody else, into the stuff of news. That includes not just a channel like News Live whose editor Atanu Bhuyan uploaded a three-video series called ‘Girl in the City’ between July 11 and 12 on YouTube, but also dozens of lurid mms clips which find their way into news. Something is changing and its not exactly uplifting our civilisational quotient.
Vigilante morality is now upping the ante for what is permissible in the garb of news. Moral judgements creep into Mr Bhuyan’s tweets. “CCTV footage of Club Mint bar shows the molestation victim with two of her female friends apparently drunk after consuming alcohol#Guwahati .” Followed by, “The footages also suggest they fought among themselves inside the bar and even had a heated argument after coming out of the bar#Guwahati .” Then he says, “Hathi jai bajare, kukur bhuke hajare” (If the elephant goes to the market, dogs will bark.) Meaning what?
Raw footage has immediacy. It can ignite revolutions, but it can also violate persons in savage ways. And it is aiding a coarsening of what passes for news. One of Mr Bhuyan’s Girl in the City videos has been removed from YouTube. The other two show the girl being mauled after she has fallen to the ground, her clothes being pulled at. And when she manages to stagger to her feet, guess what? She has a mike stuck into her face by a reporter.
As for the Delhi-based channels who went on to host discussions on the ethics of this incident—just because some footage is downloadable do you have to use it in your news bulletin? Several did, including NDTV. Headlines Today, NewsX, and others. ABPNewsTV says it did not, as a conscious policy. If you use embarrassing (and that is a mild word) footage of Abhishek Singhvi from YouTube he will sue you, so you don’t. But an assaulted schoolgirl on a Guwahati street is fair game.
The crudely graphic use of language on Hindi channels like Aaj Tak and IBN7 which accompanied the show of footage, should not be the stuff of news. They kept hollering that she was being scratched, torn apart. And Ravish Kumar’s moralistic thundering on NDTV India is not news either. Living off saleable footage for an inordinately long time is not news. But that is what YouTube has made possible.