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Definition: streaming media from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Method of transferring data, particularly audio and video, as a continuous stream. This enables the user to view, for example, a video in real time without having to first download it. It requires an Internet connection with sufficient bandwidth. Popular streaming media appications include Apple's Quicktime, BBC's iPlayer, and Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

Summary Article: Streaming Media
from Encyclopedia of Journalism

Audio and video streaming is a distribution technique for multimedia content. Streaming, as opposed to downloading, allows users to watch or listen to the content immediately without having to wait until the whole file is downloaded. Streaming has become a commonplace technique for media organizations to reach their audiences. Likewise, citizens are gaining the capacity to stream their own content as the costs continue to drop.

Advances in bandwidth availability, computer processing power and digital compression techniques allowed streaming to take off in the mid-1990s, making it a practical reality for those with broadband connections. Increases in band-width—that is, the capacity of a given channel to carry data—allowed for the streaming of multimedia content (such as music or video) with large file sizes, as opposed to text that demands far less bandwidth. Continuing increases in computer processing power and advances in compression techniques have enabled a significant decrease in the amount of information that streaming techniques requires. While the content will be of somewhat lower quality due to this compression, most users find this an acceptable tradeoff in exchange for faster speeds and more convenience.

To listen or watch content over one's computer has become widely accepted over the years. A 2007 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project states that 57 percent of Internet users have watched videos online and that most of them share what they find with others (Madden 2007). With Internet access no longer confined to desktop computers, people are increasingly accessing streaming content by means of a wide variety of mobile devices, such as cell phones. These will not replace television receivers for watching news anytime soon, but they can be useful for those on the move, or at work or traveling.

A variety of multimedia content, including most forms of audio and video, can be streamed. Listening to radio online is the most popular example of audio streaming. In contrast, podcasts, though a popular method of listening to radio online, usually have to be downloaded first and cannot be streamed. Podcasts, however, offer the advantage of syndication; users can subscribe to them and download new episodes automatically. Video requires more bandwidth than audio because of the vastly greater amount of information that is transmitted. Steady increases in bandwidth, with broadband Internet, made video streaming feasible, while the advent of video streaming sites like YouTube has made the practice extremely popular.

Streaming content can be prerecorded or live. Prerecorded content can be streamed at any time a user requests it, whereas live content is streamed at a scheduled time, such as a conference talk or a sports event. A media player is required to stream content. The player can be external, as with software such as Windows Media Player or QuickTime, or the player can be embedded in the website, which is how YouTube works.

Buffering is a technique that complements streaming. If an Internet connection is not fast enough, or is unstable and often interrupted, content may not stream smoothly and “lags” might occur—small intermittent breaks in the streaming process where the streaming cannot continue until either the connection is again stable or fast enough. To prevent these lags, streaming software relies on buffering. Buffering is the process where content is preloaded into memory (e.g., “the buffer”) until it is full before it is actually streamed—in other words, buffering makes sure that there is sufficient content to allow the content to be played uninterrupted. While content is being streamed, software will continue to fill the buffer to ensure a smooth and uninterrupted streaming experience.

Commercial Implications

Increasingly, media organizations offer users streaming content from their own websites or those of third-parties such as movies and television shows on Hulu ( or radio shows on Live365 ( With television shows, the content is usually made available a day or two after it is first aired in its original medium. From a user perspective, streaming has an advantage over downloading, in that the user does not have to wait until content is completely downloaded before use. The disadvantage of streaming is that users cannot permanently save content to their computers as they would if content had been downloaded.

However, from a commercial point of view, streaming as a form of distribution has commercial value for content providers, precisely because it does not allow users to save content while downloading does. Without a saved copy, users cannot share content with others; streaming thus allows content providers much greater control of distribution. Providers can exploit the commercial value by either charging for access to the content or by carrying advertisements (or both). Advertisements can be placed in the stream before the content is played. For advertisers, this method is desirable because users cannot skip commercials. However, users often find this way of displaying ads annoying, especially if the advertisement takes a long time. Another way to place ads is in the context of the content, for example, in a sidebar next to a video clip on the website.

While streaming generally does not permit users to save content, it is not impossible to do so. The act of recording, ripping or capturing streams, sometimes called de-streaming, saves the streaming content on a hard disk. This is neither trivial nor straightforward, especially if users seek a perfect digital copy. Analog copies are easier to capture and save (akin to recording a radio show with a microphone), but would degrade the level of quality. While it is technically not impossible to record streaming content, content providers have a business incentive to make it as hard as possible for users to do so.

Citizen Journalism

What effects will audio and video streaming have on the ways the public receives and understands information? Every technological advance changes the relationship between the news and the public in its own way. For example, the television changed the dynamics of the Vietnam War. Dubbed the first “television war,” it was the first time that a war was brought prominently into the living rooms of American families. Conventional wisdom argues that one of the effects was that it accelerated a loss of public support for the war, although some scholars disagree. With the introduction of cable television, scholars have similarly tried to understand its effects on the 1990-91 Gulf War. CNN made its name during the Gulf War by broadcasting around the clock and providing the public a sense of immediacy of the war that was different from before the advent of cable television. Since the introduction of streaming, we have seen a few interesting developments suggesting how the nature of news production and consumption is changing. For example, watching live streams became a popular phenomenon during the initial stages of the 2003 war in Iraq when live video transmitted from Baghdad became available at any time to anyone with an Internet connection. People also increasingly share clips with each other, with clips sometimes becoming so popular that they are considered “viral.” The possibility of clips going viral has led campaigns in the 2008 presidential election in general and during the debates in particular to be extremely careful not to make gaffes in order to avoid having a “YouTube moment”—a moment where a mistake is made that will be widely shared and watched on YouTube.

A telling example of such a YouTube moment and how users are sometimes able to shape news is the role citizen journalism played in the 2006 Virginia Senate Race. In his reelection campaign, Senator George Allen (R-VA) used the racial slur “macaca” to refer to an Indian American who happened to be filming a campaign event for use by the opposing candidate. Quickly uploaded onto YouTube, the clip was widely shared around the blogosphere, generating much controversy and bad publicity for Senator Allen, who subsequently lost an election he had been favored to win.

Technological advances have increasingly lowered barriers to streaming and allow users to stream content, not just to receive it. Cell phones and digital cameras that are capable of recording video are becoming more affordable. Plus, users no longer need their own web sites to stream content because numerous websites exist that can do streaming for them. The result is that citizens can effectively create their own newscasts. CNN is leveraging this fact through their iReport website by asking users to submit news stories to them. Bloggers are also using video streaming to provide commentary, allowing them to respond to television journalism, much in the way they have previously responded to print journalism.

Opportunities of low cost live streaming for journalism are manifold. One opportunity for institutions is to raise accountability and increase their interactions with the community. For example, news organizations can stream editorial meetings of the newsroom, making the community a part of the newsroom and keeping the journalists accountable to the public. Another opportunity arises when citizens have access to the news and can act as journalist when professional journalists do not have access. For example, Congressman John Culberson (R-TX) used his cell phone to stream discussions that continued after the House of Representatives was adjourned and thus after C-SPAN had stopped recording.

The ability of individuals to stream live content raises opportunities but also ethical questions for journalists. In June 2008, a man drove a truck into a crowd in Tokyo's Akihabara district, and went on a stabbing spree that resulted in seven deaths and many others injured. Two friends sitting in a nearby café saw the commotion and took their cameras and laptops with high-speed wireless cards to the scene, filming and streaming what was happening. Television had video to tell the story, but faced numerous ethical questions about just how much to show.

Legal Implications

Issues of legal liability are relevant when the user created the streaming content, but there is generally no legal liability if a person merely embeds content created and hosted by other sites, for example, when someone embeds a clip from YouTube on a blog. This rule covers most content, except in the case when it involves federal crimes, intellectual property, and electronic communications privacy. For example, in August 2008, a blogger was arrested for streaming songs from an unreleased Guns N' Roses album on a blog that provides “uncensored music reviews and interviews” (Ardia 2008). The creator of streaming content may also have legal liability if material is defamatory or invades privacy of others. If recording is done in a public space, there is generally no reasonable expectation of privacy, although obtaining prior consent and providing notification are helpful in minimizing liability. If material is created or hosted by a third-party, however, simply streaming it will not result in liability, according to the immunity provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, except in the cases when it involves federal crimes, intellectual property, and electronic communications privacy (Citizen Media Law Project 2008).


For media organizations, reaching audiences has become easier with the capacity to stream content wherever there is access to the Internet. By offering streaming content, people can watch shows they missed at any other moment in time. With the proliferation of mobile devices, they can also watch streams at any place they want, as long as they have connection and do not mind the smaller screen and lower quality. Technological advances make it increasingly possible for people to share content, but also to stream their own content in a cost-effective way, using a cameraphone and web services, effectively making every citizen with a camera and Internet connection a potential live reporter. The ability of citizen journalists to stream content carries both opportunities and many legal and ethical implications; we have barely begun to understand what this means for journalism's future.

See also

Blogs and Bloggers, Citizen Journalism, Digital Journalism Tools, Editing, Online and Digital, Podcasting

Further Readings
  • Ardia, David. “United States v. Cogill.” Citizen Media Law Project, (August 28, 2008)..
  • Cheredar, Tom. “Ustream the Newsroom: An Experiment.”, (August 11, 2008)..
  • Citizen Media Law Project. Primer on Immunity and Liability for Third-party Content under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, July 16, 2008.
  • Kramer, Staci D. “All the News That's Fit to Stream.” Online Journalism Review, (March 27, 2003)..
  • Madden, Mary. “Online Video.” Pew Internet & American Life Project, (July 25, 2007)..
  • Salzberg, Chris. “Live Streaming the Akihabara Incident.”, (July 16, 2008)..
  • Stelter, Brian. “House Goes Home but Video Goes Online via Cellphone.” The New York Times, (August 4, 2008)..
  • Tsui, Lokman
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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