On the video sharing site YouTube, the priorities are not as much the most important or pressing topic of the week, but rather what image or video was the most interesting to view. Often these came in the form of political gaffes or humorous acts captured on camera. And the geographic mix here was strongest with many videos from foreign lands.

The style of citizen participation differs as well.  While there is a place for people to comment on a clip they are viewing, most do not. Instead, their involvement comes in selecting among all the millions of videos available and then sometimes sharing that choice with others. There does not need to be as much personal attachment to activities here. Partly as a result, clicks do not convey the same sense of public endorsement as in other types of social media.

This less personal quality may be part of YouTube’s appeal. The total number of people viewing popular clips is far greater than the number of people who tend to link to and comment on news stories. Top news videos are often viewed millions of times in one week. For example, the October CNN interview with the “balloon boy” family was viewed more than 2.5 million times that week. [1] Popular stories in the blogosphere, on the other hand, garner somewhere around 300 to 500 links in a week. But they do not tend to stay popular any longer. Just 9% of these videos remained at the top for more than one week, versus 5% of top stories on Twitter and 13% on blogs. [2]


Like both Twitter and blogs, the news agenda on YouTube rarely coincided with that of the mainstream press. In only eight of the 49 weeks studied was the top video about the same subject that also led the traditional media. Of those eight occasions, three of them involved footage of discussing the health care reform bill (often with contentious opposition), and two of them were videos about the protests in Iran.

So if the most watched videos of the day are not similar to what is in the mainstream press, what news events are people choosing to view?

The answer is that most of the top videos have a visual and dynamic quality that makes people want to share them with other people.

In some instances, that quality can be of a politician’s or celebrity’s gaffe. For example, the week of August 10, during the heat of the town hall protests involving health care reform, the most viewed video was of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee appearing rather callous by answering her cell phone while a constituent was sharing a personal story.

A number of the most popular videos are of a humorous nature. In March, for instance, the top video was of an unidentified city council meeting that was interrupted by the sounds of flatulence.

And many of the most watched videos are of things that are too good, or too bad, to be believed. The performance of British singing sensation Susan Boyle on the television show Britain’s Got Talent was the most popular video one week in June and was estimated to have been viewed more than 100 million times in less than one month.

On the flip side, a surveillance tape of a drunk New York State bus driver endangering students was the most viewed in January 2010

Other times, the leading videos were related to the popular subjects of the week. In January 2009, the most viewed clip was Obama’s inaugural address while the second video was raw footage of the US Airlines plane that safely landed in the Hudson River without incurring any significant injuries.

Overseas issues gained the most attention among YouTube videos, something that reflects the international reach of the site. The second most viewed subject was President Obama.

More than a quarter (26%) of the top five most watched news videos in a given week were about things that happened overseas. Many of them were in foreign languages and were about issues that received virtually no attention in the American press or elsewhere in English-language social media.

For the week of May 4-8, for example, the four most viewed videos were of a crash at a Queen’s Day parade in the Netherlands. The videos were all in Dutch and showed dramatic footage of the crash that occurred when a man tried to attack the Dutch royal family with his car and instead struck a crowd watching the parade.

Other non-U.S. events also gained viewers because they made for great video more than any other reason. For instance, the top video the week of November 2-6 was from a British news station and showed a video of a drunk fork lift driver in Russia who drove into a warehouse and the shelves that came crashing down on him. 

After international events, the next largest subject on YouTube was government with 20%. More than half of those (11%) involved President Obama or his administration in some capacity, such as in early December when the top video was of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs getting into a feisty exchange with a reporter whom he compared to his young son. In a week in late January, two of the top videos featured Obama himself. The first clip was his weekly video address, and the fourth most watched clip was of his first interview with the Arab television station Al-Arabiya.

Videos featuring celebrities also made frequent appearances on the YouTube list, with 8%. For the week of July 6-10, for instance, all five of the top videos involved the death of music icon Michael Jackson. Two of those videos came from the eulogy service held in Jackson’s honor. Even though Jackson was not on a major subject that week elsewhere on social media, the dramatic moments broadcast originally on television and archived online made it a dominating YouTube subject.


One of the unique aspects of YouTube is the ability of users to view raw footage that is not edited or posted by a news organization. Many of the most viewed news videos on YouTube are of this nature.

For example, for two consecutive weeks in September, the most viewed video was a first-person clip from a demonstration in Pittsburgh surrounding the G20 summit where an unidentified protestor is forced into a car by three men dressed in camouflage.

Clips such as these provide an open forum for anyone to post newsworthy videos, but there is often little verifiable information to accompany the video to provide context for the viewer.

Other popular YouTube videos are segments from news television programs. A July 25 interview from Fox News in which the guest was clearly flirting with the woman interviewing him was the most viewed one week.

Finally, a fair number of popular YouTube videos come from news organizations based overseas – often in languages other than English. In late August, a Brazilian news report about a teacher who was fired after a video of her dancing provocatively at a nightclub surfaced was the most viewed.


1. This does not mean that 2.5 million people watched the clip because it is likely that a number of people viewed it multiple times.

2.  PEJ’s method of tracking the most popular topics on YouTube is different than the method for tracking blogs and Twitter. For YouTube, PEJ simply captures the top-five most frequently viewed news videos each week.