Is immersive journalism on social media platforms viable?
It is not possible to start talking about immersive journalism without taking into account the definition coined by Nonny De la Peña, an American journalist, documentary filmmaker and the creator of the genre of immersive journalism. She defines it as the production of news in which the user gets a first person experience of the events or situations described in the news. (de la Peña et al., 2010, p291) Data from over a 1000 campaigns collated by OmniVirt, shows an 300 % increase in user engagement (click through rate) while using 360 video and an 85% video completion rate (VCR) as compared to a 58.2 % VCR in regular videos. (OmniVirt, 2017)
Despite the rising interest in the field, immersive journalism as a genre is still in its infancy. However, social media companies are already working on ways to show these stories on their platform. In 2014, Facebook struck a 2 billion dollar deal to buy Oculus VR, a company that was known for the VR games. But shortly after the takeover, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said that while Oculus will not stop creating games all of a sudden, the aim is that content creators will create non-gaming experiences for its users. (Dredge, 2014) Google and Apple are also trying to get their share of the VR market. Both Google and Apple are focusing more on the gaming industry at the moment in an effort to build a user-base and also monetise the technology. Google however has also ventured into the storytelling field and has created Emmy-award winning VR films are their Spotlight studios. (Google.com, 2019) Apart from VR, the iOS and Android are also focusing on AR apps in their app store. While the social media and technology giants continue investing in VR and AR technologies, it is now up to the journalists to build immersive stories. That brings us to the question, is immersive journalism on social media viable?
Is technology ready to create immersive stories?
(A cost benefit analysis)
For immersive stories to work technology needs to be affordable and accessible on both ends; the production and consumption. While the cost of entry-level 360 degree cameras are coming down, the high-end 360 cameras required for shooting VR films still cost a fortune. Similarly, looking at the other end, the sale of VR headsets is extremely low at the moment. (Janko Roettgers and Janko Roettgers, 2017)
For consuming news on social media, the best way out will be mobile VR i.e. using a smartphone in a VR headset. This technology can be used in the meantime, while hoping that future smartphones come with the capability of navigating VR experiences. Mobile VR will also ensure mass distribution of the experiences. It is forecast the market share for VR and AR will be 192 billion US dollars by 2022, which shows that there will be an interest in this genre of storytelling.
While creating immersive content remains a risky investment, the lack of a repeatable revenue model proves to be another hindrance in creating immersive stories. Most of the news organisations depend on ads to be able to pay their employees. But it is difficult to place ads in VR/AR films, which becomes difficult to monetise the projects as the production costs rises. Both news organisations and news wires (The New York Times, Associated Press and Reuters) are producing immersive content on daily basis to judge the appetite for the genre but still haven’t found a way to earn a revenue out of it. (Watson, 2017, p17–22) It is also difficult to put a price on creating immersive stories because of the variety of the content produced like games, films and reports.
Social media as the form
(Analysing the reach and ethics of social media journalism)
Monthly active users of different social media platforms amounts to 3.19 billion people in the world. The number of the people consuming VR stores is 141 million, which is only 4.4% of the total social media population. Keeping in mind that most of the VR usage right now is in the field of gaming, the intersection of social media and VR users will be extremely small. That leaves a huge space for content creators to capitalise on. (Smart Insights, 2019) (Statista, 2014)
Facebook started merging immersive journalism and social media in 2017 when Mark Zuckerberg showed the video of an immersive experience while he toured in Puerto Rico after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. In the experience, the user could create an avatar of themselves and travel through Puerto Rico by using their VR headsets. The experience was the result of the combination of Facebook’s VR technology with 360 degree video shot by National Public Radio (NPR). This experience let the users interact with different places and opened up new opportunities for doing journalistic stories in which the user can be provided with an in-situ experience by using immersion. (Stroud, 2015)
While one part of the audience couldn’t stop raving about the use of the immersive technology in journalism, another raised the issue of ethics in immersive journalism. Zuckerberg was criticised for using a tragedy to introduce Facebook Spaces and other VR products that his company was launching. Questions were also raised about the experience in itself. Zuckerberg repeatedly claimed that by this kind of an experience, the user gets to sympathise with the victims of the natural disaster. However, some people argued that the use of animated avatars decreased the seriousness of the experience.
De la Peña in an interview to Tech Republic said that “there’s a responsibility with taking a person’s body along for the ride.” (Carson, 2015) In VR, when audience and the creator both need to understand that difference between witnessing the story in-situ and being a victim of the situation. A person can see the devastation created by a natural disaster but when they remove the VR headset, their life hasn’t changed like that of the people in the story. It becomes important to not give the feeling of false consciousness to the user.
Thomas Kent, the standards editor of The Associated Press, wrote in a Medium post about the issue of recreating news stories with the help of animations. Even though the recreated might become life-like in a few years, the control will never be completely in the hands of the user. The creator will have to decide the paths the user can take and guide them through it. (Kent, 2015)
Apart from the issue of journalistic ethics, social media comes with its own set of problems. Recreating real events gives the chance to the fake news industry to create similar stories and stir up controversies. At the same time, social media gives the power of anonymity to its users. This means instead of showing empathy, some users might end up trolling the story or characters in the story depending upon their beliefs and ideals. (Thibault, 2018)
Despite the problems and ethical considerations, social media also has some advantages when it comes to delivering news. The main and biggest advantage that social media has to offer to is store the stories forever. The social media platforms are slowly becoming archives of news stories and this will help news agencies save their resources when it comes to digital space. The high number of social media users also means that there will be people to verify and report if any fake news story is being flouted on the platform. The platforms together have a huge number of users but at the same time, all the platforms have the option of sharing the stories on their contemporary platforms. This will help in increasing the reach of the news story.
The quality of content
(Analysing existing stories)
Most of the “immersive” stories on the news websites are actually just 360 videos being confused with VR stories. It is important to differentiate between them. Dan Cotting, Director of Immersive Technology at Shockoe, a mobile UI design company, states that a regular 360 video gives the user a 360 view of what the camera sees without giving the user any autonomy or direction in the story. (Cotting, 2018) While an immersive experience transports the users into a different mental space where the story is often directed and every frame in the experience contributes to the story, instead of the just being there to see. The user is given certain amount of agency on the stories and goes beyond the idea of just showing the story by letting the user craft their journeys in the story. In 2017, USA Today Network did a live 360 news coverage of the swearing-in ceremony of the US President Donald J Trump, which was live streamed on social media platforms. (USA TODAY, 2017)
The directed VR experiences made by news organisations right now are stand-alone projects available either on mobile applications like Guardian’s 6x9 or NFB’s The Enemy or are available as computer applications like BBC’s We Wait. A few other VR experiences are made in the form of exhibitions or installations to give the user unrestricted space to wander in the project and find make their own path.
a) Freddie Gray AR story: In 2015, an 25-year-old African-American man was arrested and for the possession of an illegal knife and died while being transported in a police van. The victim’s family registered a case of police brutality and the story managed to reach the front pages. In 2016, Washington Post created an AR app using 3D imagery, audio, maps and text collected by their reporters to show the audience what happened on the day Gray was arrested. Like many other news stories, this too is a recreation of what happened on the fateful day and for me, the use of animations reduces the seriousness of the issue. But at the same time, this format gives the reporter a way to talk about all the aspects of the story in one place instead of just focusing on the details. (Washington Post,2016)
b) Nepal Quake Project by RYOT: Contrary to the Freddie Gray story, this was not an app-based story. This story was available on YouTube and using the social media platform meant higher reach and shareability. The visuals in the story were not animated and that gave me the feeling of actually being able to see things instead of the journalist’s vision of what things would be like. However, given the social media platforms are not VR-ready yet, the user didn’t have any agency in the story. (RYOT, 2015)
Max Boenke, Head of Video at Berliner Morgenpost, notes that most of the content produced by the news organisations in the immersive genre is not interesting and this is keeping people away from such stories. (Watson, 2017, p12) Therefore, while Facebook spaces is trying out its beta version and Google, Microsoft and Sony create their dedicated VR devices, it is the prerogative of the journalists to create quality content that will help both in monetising the technology as well as further exploring it.
Jeremy Bailenso, a professor of communication at Stanford University and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, said “Bringing audiences closer to the reality of a story has always been the preoccupation of journalists, and VR, it seems, offers an ideal multimedia experience.” (Bailenso, 2018). Social media provides the news organisations with a large audience and a free-archiving service. Immersive stories and the constant growth in the number of social media users makes this the ideal match. The steady development in immersive technologies will also translate into the journalists getting more creative freedom while reducing the cost of production.
So, while Facebook works on its VR platform, Microsoft makes it’s Hollow lens affordable and Google reworks its vision of Google glass, it is on the journalists and news organisations to manage the audience expectations and educate them in the new technology. We still have a long way to go before VR projects can be created for mass-consumption. So, in the meantime, social media apps and platforms can be used to showcase the VR stories that can be viewed with just the basic headsets.
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