YouTube as a Social Semiotic for Citizen Journalism: The Oscar Pistorius Trial

Ruth Page, University of Birmingham

This paper examines the ways in which the multimodal affordances of YouTube enable and constrain different kinds of participatory practices in citizen journalism. In the context of YouTube, citizen journalism can include uploading reports of or responses to news events, remixing news with other online content, curating news content, commenting on and consuming the news. The discussion focuses on the YouTube coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial in 2014 for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. The data comprise a corpus of 601 YouTube videos and their appended comments (totalling 161,361), gathered using Context Miner (Shah 2015) in July 2015. The videos include the live-streamed trial, news reports, comedians’ skits, musical parodies, rants and v-loggers’ personal responses which critiqued Pistorius and the outcome of the trial. The paper is divided in two parts: (1) A conceptualisation of YouTube’s multimodal affordances in relation to White’s model of news narratives and (2) exemplification of how images as news satellites were recontextualised in different kinds of video-based citizen journalism.

(1) YouTubeandthenucleus^satellite model of news narratives 
The semiotic structure of YouTube sets up a multimodal contrast between the audio-visual video content and the text-based comments that may be appended to individual videos. The design of the YouTube’s archive constrains these semiotic clusters within a channel-based architecture which promotes the visibility of the audio-visual content through interaction with the video’s comments and response-based icons (rankings and viewings). This has implications for the hierarchies of news narrative production. From a textual perspective, I use a multimodal adaptation of White’s (1998) nucleus^satellite model of the news narratives to explain how the elements of the YouTube template (such as the description, rankings and comments) function as different kinds of satellites that elaborate, contextualise, appraise and debate the content in the video.

A quantitative comparison of the interaction with these multimodal components showed patterns of difference between the people involved in citizen journalistic practices. The majority of the audio-visual content (the videos) was produced by news outlets (73% of the videos) rather than individual YouTube members (27% of the videos). Of the videos uploaded by individual members, there were scant examples of participatory responses to the trial, comprising just four parody videos, one rant and one personal v-log. In contrast, the comments did not include interactions from the news outlets but were added by individual YouTube members.

The multimodal affordances of YouTube thus seem to demarcate a semiotic contrast that sharpens rather than blurs the production and reception of the news. News outlets continue to broadcast audio- visual content and retain narrative production through the ‘nuclei’ of the videos uploaded to YouTube, whilst the viewing audience primarily engage through text-based comments rather than uploading video content of their own. In line with critical evaluation of social media (Van Dijk 2013), this analysis suggests that the text-based responses of citizen journalism ultimately serve the interests of the mainstream media outlets.

(2) A multimodalanalysisofthevideos:Visual recontextualisation
The primacy of the audio-visual content in the news nuclei is also reflected and reinforced by its potential to serve as material that was recontextualised in different ways within citizen journalism. Within the videos in this dataset, images were a key resource that as narrative ‘satellites’ were recontextualised in retellings of and responses to the news. This recontextualisation of images exploited the low narrativity and high symbolic potency of visual communication, where generic images that circulated of Pistorius and Steenkamp could be put to different ends as they were inserted into new communicative contexts. The contrasting use of visual content in mainstream television news is illustrated by comparing four videos:

  • Mainstream news report by Sky News
  • Online news commentary by The Young Turks
  • V-logger’s personal response
  • Parody song: Pistorius Rhapsody

In the mainstream news, the visual content operates as satellites that elaborated and appraised the reported events from the livestreamed trial in the verbal narration of the headline and lead. In the online news commentary from The Young Turks, the images were qualitatively and quantitatively different from those in the mainstream news, being less in number and generic in quality. The images were no longer recontextualised from the live-streamed trial, but were examples that had circulated in the mainstream media in previous publicity of Pistorius and Steenkamp and sourced from the Getty image archive. Similarly, in the video posted by YouTube member Josh Sundquist, generic images of Pistorius were used to contextualise the v-logger’s response to the verdict, but these were accompanied by additional visual content such as reconstructed images of the scene of the crime and footage from other televised documentaries that were available through mainstream broadcast channels. In both cases, the function of the generic images was back grounded relative to the verbal track, and as visual satellites only contextualised the persons and places mentioned in the reported news, rather than elaborating or appraising events.

The intertextual repurposing of visual content in the parody song, Pistorius Rhapsody was somewhat different. In this video by the YouTube channel Amateur Transplants, a range of visual content was incorporated as a montage that accompanied a parodic retelling of Pistorius’ fall from grace performed using the music of Queen’s rock ballad, Bohemian Rhapsody. The visual content included excerpts from television documentaries of Pistorius and Steenkamp at the height of their careers, computer-generated simulations of the crime scene, images from the court room, and from Steenkamp’s funeral. Unlike the broad contextualisation in the online commentary, the parody video relied on closer mapping between the verbal and visual content but used this to create blended schemas that negatively appraised by Pistorius and the mediated myth of his celebrity status. In contrast to the text-based satellites which served to reinforce the visibility of the mainstream news, it seems that the visual satellites found within the videos have greater potential to open up critique, including critique of the mainstream media itself.