A seat at the table: Google News Lab & Euronews talk to French voters in 360
What’s it like to have a cup of coffee with a voter two weeks before the French Presidential election? We partnered with Euronews to find out: providing viewers a seat at the table of a French voter to hear his views on the candidates in the run up to the upcoming election.
The piece, also available on YouTube, will be part of a series of nine 360 videos, all produced in partnership with Euronews, to get the pulse of diverse French voters ahead of next month’s elections. The partnership will also produce a tenth episode that will create a VR environment allowing viewers to watch the nine profiled voters’ reactions to the election results. To get closer to the subjects as close as possible to the field, Euronews worked with over half a dozen French regional media newsrooms, including in overseas territories, such as Ouest-France, Centre-France, Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, La Nouvelle République, Radio Caraïbes International and StreetPress.
The project is a part of a broader series of immersive storytelling partnerships the News Lab has undertaken to produce pieces that showcase the potential of immersive storytelling technologies in news and to share best practices and learnings from those projects across the industry.
We had the opportunity to speak to the project lead at Euronews, virtual reality editor Thomas Seymat, about the series, why he felt it was important to undertake, and lessons it taught him on the use of immersive storytelling in news.
How did the idea for a 360°/VR piece about the FR presidential election come to your mind?
Thomas: The political events of 2016 have been a wake up call for news organizations. Failures to see the results of the Brexit referendum or the U.S. election coming highlighted the gap between the media and the people they are supposed to cover. Filter bubbles, online and in real life, skewed perceptions.
In 2017, with key elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany in the fall, journalists have a responsibility to get closer to the electorate. Immersive journalism gives us the tools to do precisely that: meeting French citizens ahead of the vote and, thanks to 360° video, taking our digital audience along with us.
Tell us about Euronews’ efforts to produce news video in 360°?
Thomas: Euronews published its first 360° video in February 2016. With the support of Google’s DNI fund, we have scaled up our operation and published over 85 videos since the end of June 2016. Thanks to this volume, we now have a unique experience, and have built a bespoke 360 workflow: it is a live experiment which consists in having both TV and digital workflows running in parallel, in the same space and within the same editorial team, to benefit from each other
It runs parallel to the digital and TV operations, but benefits from the skills from both. The aim of this workflow is to publish several timely, multi-lingual, 360° news videos per week. So, while ambitious, it proved relatively easy to adapt our existing process to the production of this multi-episodes series covering French society ahead of the presidential election: the numerous moving parts that form our immersive journalism workflow are already used to work together. The rhythm imposed by a multi-episodes series is pretty intense, especially due to the hard deadline of April 23rd, the first round of the election. I am not saying it is a walk in the park, but since we had accumulated experience shooting and publishing 360° videos we had learned how to overcome last minute challenges. We only had to fine tune our process. We did not start from scratch.
Why did you decide to partner with local newsrooms? What specific challenges/advantages did this collaborative approach present?
Thomas: Local media are trusted sources of news and have unparalleled knowledge of and access to the territories they cover. They are the ideal partners for a project like ours, as we wanted to hear from people with compelling stories all over France, and to strictly avoid “parachute journalism”, something that plagues large media organizations. Most newsrooms we contacted were eager to join this project, even though some had limited resources and time to invest. They have been instrumental to reach the level of geographical and sociological diversity the project hopes to cover.
It is also great to see that media innovation is not confined to large Parisian news organizations. Most importantly, we feel privileged to have the opportunity to share our immersive journalism experience with them, and to benefit from their knowledge and access. The joint publication of the videos on Euronews and the partner’s digital platform will ensure that it not only reaches a large audience, but also broadcasts the voices of diverse French citizens on a global scale, thanks to translation in English, German, Russian, Italian, and Spanish.
The project was a harder sell for others for various reasons, and that’s fine too. We approached every media organization with an open mind, hoping to find like-minded folks there. We are deeply grateful that so many answered positively and the collaborative aspect of the project improves several fold.
What advice do you have for smaller organizations that want to experiment in VR?
Thomas: A good story is a good story, so trust your journalists. Give them a chance to take a 360° camera while reporting a story, but without the pressure to necessarily produce something. If you are interested in immersive journalism, but unsure where to start, I recommend you check Journalism360. It’s an initiative which aims at gathering resources online for both beginner and expert immersive journalists. I wish it would have existed when I started doing immersive journalism, it would have saved me a lot of time!
Creating a VR experience takes resources, journalists, video editors, and partners. What surprised you about the process?
Thomas: Our extensive VR experience has prevented us from having any (large) bad surprise for this presidential election project. We had a few good surprises even, such as we have encountered the same interest for experimenting with 360° video among our local partners that I had found among most of my colleagues when I started implementing the project last summer. The new approach was never a concern or source of objections when we pitched the medium, so it’s encouraging for the future of immersive journalism in France.
What kind of unique, ethical questions came up in interviewing individual voters all across the country in 360°? Can you provide an example?
Thomas: Our videos were shot in people’s homes — so they have to understand a 360° camera captures everything around them. We also wanted to capture the most natural speech possible, so we kept the crew to a bare minimum: 1 local journalist, and 1 journalist-producer from Euronews. We did not want to invade homes and make people so uncomfortable they would shut off.
Filming in public can be a challenge as you inevitably feature passers-by who haven’t explicitly granted permission to be filmed. This situation occurs during regular filming too, and it’s simply something you need to be prepared for, if anyone does object. The benefit of our approach to 360° was that it was inconspicuous, and encouraged subjects to open up. As an editor you need to be on your guard to ensure nothing you broadcast contravenes French media publication laws.
We’ve also hoping to be able to use some cutting-edge new graphical approaches thanks to our partnership with Vragments towards the end of the series to summarize the content.
Were there any major technical challenges or storytelling challenges your team faced along the way? How did you overcome them?
Thomas: Despite all of our experience, the scale of the project means that of course there is going to be some challenges, but so far, nothing we could not fix with either a little extra effort, flexibility, or goodwill. I don’t monitor all the VR news pieces published in the world, but I don’t think anything close to this has been attempted to this scale before.
What do you hope to achieve in terms of how this piece will impact the conversation around the election? Will it contribute something that more traditional forms of storytelling couldn’t?
Thomas: In terms of impact, when watched properly with a cardboard or a headset, and earphones, VR isolates you from the surrounding world. Which is great because it means we have your full attention, and you are not distracted by your smartphone, etc. This will reinforce the strength of the testimonies in our video, in which people are being very open about their hopes, fears, and expectations ahead of the vote. By listening more closely to those people and being immersed where they actually live and work, audiences can better understand why they have formed the opinions they express.
Because it takes audiences directly to the center of the story, immersive journalism can paint a scene better than the best photographer or writer could. Spherical video is a de-mediated media in the sense that the viewer has a lot of editorial agency to choose where to look — a choice traditionally dictated by the journalist. So we really are taking our international audience into the houses, gardens, and workplaces of the French citizens we are creating portraits of.