The Investigators

Controversial YouTube host Shane Dawson investigates the life of social media star Jake Paul

The online series described as an ‘investigation’ and ‘documentary’ already has over 80 million views, but does its young audience believe it’s journalism?

The series has more than 80 million views. But does it qualify as journalism?

YouTube star Shane Dawson dives into the world of fellow YouTuber Jake Paul, in a series critics say trivializes mental illness. (The Mind of Jake Paul/YouTube)

"Let's investigate Jake Paul!" yells YouTube star Shane Dawson to his more than 18 million subscribers as he pops the cork on a small bottle filled with confetti. Moments later, he leans in close to the camera recording the scene, and pretends to grimace in fear over the project he's embarking on.

It's just one moment among hundreds in the new YouTube series Dawson has created, called "The Mind of Jake Paul." It's a frenetic look at the life of Paul, another one of the online platform's biggest stars.

"We can't think of it as like a traditional documentary," said Megan Farokhmanesh who spoke to CBC News about the massively popular series, that's garnered more than 80 million views in just over a week.

"I think that YouTube journalism is a little bit different from the journalism you and I know," she said. Farokhmanesh has been watching and reporting on the series for The Verge, an online site based in New York that covers technology and media.

Watch the full episode of The Investigators:

Shane Dawson’s YouTube series on the life of Jake Paul is getting millions of views, but is it journalism? Diana talks to Megan Farokhmanesh who covers YouTube for The Verge. Watch ‘The Investigators with Diana Swain’ Thursdays at 7:00 pm on CBC Television; Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET and Sundays at 5:30 pm ET on CBC News Network. 5:14

The focus of Dawson's series, 21-year-old Paul is one of the most successful of the current crop of YouTube stars, with more than 17 million subscribers of his own. Hundreds of videos posted to Paul's site show him doing stunts that appear to put him and his friends in danger. That's led Dawson to investigate whether Paul's increasingly risky behaviour is actually the result of a mental disorder that prevents him from feeling empathy for the people he puts in the stunts.

"I'm doing like a little documentary thing about whether or not he's a sociopath," Dawson says to the camera in the first episode.

This approach to a serious topic is anything but traditional, and online posts criticizing the series have suggested Dawson is exploiting Paul and trivializing mental illness.

'A lot to learn'

Dawson repeatedly reaches for journalistic jargon to describe what he's doing, referencing his "investigation" and its "intensive research."

All of this playing out in front of a young online audience.  Paul described his own fan base to ABC's Good Morning America, as " like 8 years old to 16 years old."

"I think that currently, journalists and YouTubers kind of have ... a very adversarial relationship and that's because I think we don't quite understand them," Farokhmanesh said.

Paul has more than 17 million subscribers on his YouTube channel. (Taylor Jewell/Invision via Associated Press)

Dawson's depiction of mental illness, which at one point featured the word "sociopath" along with horror-movie music, led to strong pushback that caused him to apologize on subsequent instalments of his series.

"I think overall, he [Dawson] still has a lot to learn. But, again, so do we," said Farokhmanesh in defending his style.

"The way that Shane Dawson is presenting a truth that we wouldn't have access to otherwise, is really important.  Youtube doesn't really have anybody who's covering it's issues. And, there are lot of serious things to be talked about."

She says with young audiences getting so much of their news and information online, it's traditional news media who have to find a way to understand how to incorporate Dawson's approach into their own quest for younger audiences.

"Shane's been on the platform for almost a decade now, and he has this sort of reach that you … and I just don't.  He's getting a lot of eyeballs, more so than more other Youtubers who are doing this work."

The day after this story was published, Dawson responded on Twitter to CBC's Diana Swain:

Also this week on The Investigators with Diana Swain: Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian talks about the troubling disappearance and feared murder of fellow Post writer, Jamal Khashoggi. And, Halifax cartoonist Bruce MacKinnon discusses his evocative drawing about the Kavanaugh hearings, that prompted reaction in Canada and the U.S.

About the Author

Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.

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