What journalists need to know before diving into immersive journalism

Talar Kijilian
Nov 12, 2017 · 17 min read
Immersive media. Courtesy of Pixabay

In short

Due to technological, social and industrial advances and the digitization of media, journalism as a practice, a business and an institution is facing many challenges as well as opportunities. Recent key technological progresses in journalism have focused on social media, mobile applications and online video.

This white paper addresses the repercussions of the take-off of virtual reality (VR) and 360° videos in journalistic news stories, focusing more on the latter.

The paper starts with a short introduction of the topic, and gives a brief definition and history of VR and 360° video. We then elaborate on the reasons why VR and 360° video are relevant for journalists, and how these technologies disrupt the field. Our main points are:

  1. It is somewhat vital for journalists and news organizations to always stay updated with the current trends and technological advances.
  2. Some news organizations, most notably The New York Times, The Huffington Post and The Guardian, have gone on board with creating 360° video to take advantage of the popularity of video news, social and mobile media.
  3. The key disruption caused by VR and 360° journalism is the shift from an informative to a narrative practice — where the audience actually enters a virtually recreated or recorded scenario representing the news story.
  4. Complementary skills are needed for journalist to engage in VR and 360° video, such as skills in producing, film direction, video-editing, videography, etc.
  5. Monetisation is unclear. It is uncertain wether users will be ready to pay for these forms of news and whether advertisers will want to support it. What is certain is that this kind of content is expensive to produce and that no current advertising standards govern the way brand messaging can be associated with VR viewing.

Next, we discuss the positive and negative outcomes of VR (or 360°) journalism.

On the bright side, VR and 360-degree videos, whose market is on the rise, can enhance journalists’ storytelling potential by offering experiences and environments to news users that are unique, and thus lead to more engaged users.

On the other hand, the implementation of these technologies in journalistic stories is time consuming and expensive (for both the producer and viewer, especially in the case of VR). This may lead to a limited accessibility of news. Furthermore, fears of media as propaganda may worsen. Other repercussions are questioning journalistic norms and ethics and the impracticability of technology’s constant evolution.

Based on the above interpretations, we advise journalists and news organizations that plan to take steps in the production of VR and 360° video for news stories to keep in mind to, at first, focus on specific types of stories until further research is conducted. Second, we also stress that VR and 360° videos won’t replace TV, print or radio even if they can be used in numerous ways,

Finally, we conclude that the integration of VR in journalism will present more opportunities and challenges in the future with the probable development of ‘virtual-reality journalism broadcasts’ and other new innovations.


A deep dive into VR and 360° video

Any time a new technology is introduced in an industry, people react to it with uncertainty and reluctance. The field of journalism is no different. Starting in the late 19th century, when people were talking about the evolution of radio, a Boston Post editorial declared that it would be “of no practical value”. Furthermore when television was introduced, The New York Times (in 1939) declared in a review that “the problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued on the screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it”. Same with the internet which apparently “will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse” (Robert Metcalfe, Founder of 3Com and inventor of Ethernet, in 1995). Consequently, it shouldn’t be a surprise that VR and 360° video are or will be subject to the same kind of reactions.

What is VR?

Virtual reality is an immersive experience that reproduces either a real or an imagined three-dimensional and computer generated environment, which allows the users to immerse themselves in it and interact with it as if they were really there. Most VR stories in 2016 are displayed either on a computer monitor, a projection/smartphone screen or with a virtual reality headset.

At the moment, virtual reality and immersive storytelling come in several forms: Virtual Reality, which produces a virtual world via Computer Generated Imagery (CGI); Augmented Reality, which starts with the real world and overlays virtual objects and information; and 360° Video, which records a real-world scene in which the viewer can look up, down and around. This white paper will refer to, particularly, the last method in news making and journalistic storytelling.

What is 360° video?

360° video is a form of shooting and experiencing video that allows the user to look in all the directions of a video-recorded scene. In 360° video or spherical filmmaking, the user, or the audience, no longer looks straight to a flat framed image, but explores the video by moving the fingers (by swiping the image around) or by moving a device like a smartphone or a tablet. 360° video can also be enjoyed in a VR headset although it doesn’t mean all 360° video is virtual reality.

A Short History of VR and 360°

360-degree videos and VR technologies have been around for years. However, recent technological advances have led to a consumer-based virtual reality production. To be more specific, two main technological advances shaped this opportunity: cameras that can record a scene in 360° video and the evolution of VR headsets.

In the beginning of 2012, Nonny de la Peña, a former Newsweek reporter, introduced her latest project Hunger in Los Angeles, a virtual reality experience which placed the viewers in line at a Los Angeles food bank witnessing a man collapse from a diabetic attack. Viewers were quite traumatized from this experience. Hence, de la Peña succeeded in reaching her goal as a journalist: to create stories that can make a difference, to inform the audience of their surroundings and inspire them to care.

It was during this time that de la Peña’s intern, Palmer Luckey, developed the Oculus Rift (fig. 1) headset. This new advancement, along with de la Peña’s project’s success, encouraged companies and researchers to become more fascinated by both the content and broadcasting sides of VR. A few years later, a wide range of other headsets have emerged such as the Cardboard (fig. 2) (by Google), the Gear VR (fig. 3) (by Samsung), the Vive (by HTC) and many others. These progresses coupled with new 360° cameras, 3D-video capture and display technology, have encouraged media’s interest in VR storytelling. More specifically, it was the application of VRSE — now With.in, by American filmmaker Chris Milk — that encouraged news media’s interest in VR. Milk used 3D immersive experiences and 360-degree videos to showcase significant topics such as Clouds over Sidra.

Why journalists should care about VR and 360°?

Why are 360 video and VR relevant for journalists?

Before the introduction of digital and communication technologies, the field of journalism was based on high market power over distribution platforms, mass audience, and mass advertisers, and the public’s access to news and entertainment was restricted through time and space. However, due to technological, social and industrial advances and the digitization of media, these constrains have loosened, and new biases in the social structure have been created. As a result, society is no longer as heavily dependent on traditional media (newspapers, TV and radio) as before since people can easily access news with a click of a few buttons (or with a few touches on their smartphones/tablets). Journalists and news organisations should be aware of the fact that these innovations lead to a stronger competition for news users’ attention, and an important way to win that battle is by differentiating yourself through a competitive advantage.

As a consequence, news organizations cannot but direct their gaze towards new trends and technologies. Recently, journalists have turned to powerful 360° videos in journalistic storytelling. Leading news organizations from The Wall Street Journal to Euronews, The New York Times, The Associated Press and The Guardian are experimenting with these techniques. They showcase user-generated content around breaking news on social media, more specifically on Facebook and YouTube — which in turn have come on board with this movement and launched YouTube 360 and Facebook 360. The fact that both of these social media are supporting 360° videos is a shot in the arm for the promising industry of virtual reality filmmakers. Also, it is a call for journalists — whose reliance on social media has already increased over the years — to benefit from these opportunities and create new strategies.

Furthermore, news accessed from smartphones have jumped significantly over the past two years [1]. Hence, the smartphone has become the defining device for digital news.

Consequently, some news organizations have taken advantage from this growth, and have launched mobile applications which emphasize on telling stories in 360° video . For instance, The New York Times, USA Today, RYOT (a California start-up company specialized in 360-degree video) and The Guardian have launched NYT VR, VR Stories, RYOT VR and The Guardian VR respectively. These applications allow the viewer to experience stories reported by journalists in an immersive 360-degree video experience.

Reuters conducted a study [2] in order to understand the impact of technological changes on news consumption patterns and routines of Reuters.com users. They learned that 79% of millennials feel VR will influence their news consumption in the long term.

Hence, we should no longer ask why VR technology is relevant for journalists, but rather how should they adopt this new trend? And as a result, what varieties of disruptions will the field of journalism face?

How can VR and 360° video disrupt journalism?

The VR medium challenges core journalistic questions such as “Who is the journalist?”, “Who does the journalist represent?”, “Are users, invisible bystanders in the scene? Do they inhabit the journalist’s position and role?”, “Is the journalist (and her or his team) in the field of view?”, “Is the journalist the guide to the experience?”[3] All of these questions represent possible significant changes for the practice of journalism.

First, VR and 360° video require journalists to connect more with the storytelling side of news production. Journalist aim foremost to inform the public. In VR and 360° video, however, the viewer “enters” a digitally represented world through a traditional computer interface. The viewer can look around, up and down the scenery while listening to the recited news story, and he/she can investigate different topics and aspects of the underlying news story. This offers a method of navigation and an experience that is much more entangled with the narrative structure, a type of interactive journalism called Immersive Journalism[5]. Catherine Allen — a freelance VR producer for the BBC — explained that “With virtual reality, rather than telling a story, you are putting someone inside a story — and usually involving them in it,”. The main aim of immersive journalism is to allow the viewer to actually enter a virtually recreated or recorded scenario representing the news story. The user will be present in a different environment, see the scenery and even be part of it from the first-person.

This requires another approach at telling the news, one where journalists act more like film-makers and narrators aspiring to convey not only information, but also an emotional connection with the news. VR journalists have a strong interaction with their audience and also seek to encourage them to take action. Next to the fact that not all journalists might feel comfortable with this approach, there is also the concern that the user’s ability to control elements of the experience risks masking the editorial aspect of the journalist’s work.

Second, next to this more emotive approach to journalism, the whole process from capturing through viewing VR and 360° video requires a wide range of specialist and professional skills. A project like VR or 360° video creation entails team members that have skills in producing, film direction, video-editing, coding, videography and many other technical aptitudes. It is impossible for a journalist to perform all of these roles. Thus, there should be collaboration between an editorial team and a digital production one. Journalists should accept the fact that news making is no longer a linear top-down process, but rather a collaborative one. The news companies exploring these opportunities are becoming more cooperative with technology companies, designers… For instance The New York Times collaborated with Google, when it launched its NYT VR app and sent out a million Google Cardboard headsets to its subscribers [4].

A third disruption concerns the business of VR and 360° video. As the elements above already suggest, producing 360-degree videos and other VR live-motion is expensive and hence difficult to implement especially for small, new-coming or low-budget news organizations/journalists. In terms of expensen, capturing the video is burdensome since the necessary cameras are either prototypes, made by putting together separate cameras, or high-end and expensive.

In addition to the capturing process, the post-production and the stitching process, can be difficult, time consuming and costly. It requires large amounts of human effort to supplement the computational pass, and hence involve “cost and time implications which logically challenge journalistic applications, reliant as they are on timely releases to audiences”[7]. For VR to be more widespread, tools that reduce this burden will need to be created and become readily available.

In terms of revenues, only a few virtual reality news experiences have attracted advertising. No current advertising standards govern the way brand messaging can or should be associated with VR viewing. Nonetheless, digital ad experts are testing ways to include brand messaging in virtual reality content. They stress on finding new creative and custom integrations, for instance “pre-role, native VR and advertorial features, product placement, and deep linking to contextual marketing and brand experiences elsewhere in the ecosystem”[6].

Accordingly, VR and 360° journalism may not be a profitable business at first (like many other new businesses). However, it is important to note that future investments in VR technologies are forecasted to increase (see below). Also news corporations believe that the introduction of this new technology has the potential to add great value by adding new subscribers, and hence, increase their revenues[8].

Key opportunities & challenges

VR and 360° journalism might come with disruptions, but also with important opportunities for the future of journalism.

Immersive storytelling as a unique journalistic format

VR and 360° video have the potential to enhance storytelling by offering experiences and environments to their viewers that are out of their reach, such as revealing Britain’s immigration detention systems — a short story called Indefinite by The New York Times (in its NYT VR mobile application), the lives of Syrian refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp (in Jordan) — a VR story called Clouds over Sidra, the lives of Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the consequences of natural disasters: Nepal After the Earthquake — a 360-degree story directed by RYOT, and many other groundbreaking news stories.

However, right now and for the probable future, the truth is that not every news story is suited for virtual reality. Currently, it is more of a complement to other forms of reporting than a platform that can replace them. However, the potential for impacting audiences is quite appealing.

“Virtual reality is the ‘ultimate empathy machine.’ These experiences are more than documentaries. They’re opportunities to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”-Chris Milk

A market that is largely unexplored and growing

According to Knights Foundations Organization, the number of new investors in the technology, content creation and distribution of VR experiences has increased 27% in 2015 over 2014 and was projected to continue to increase in 2016. Digi-Capital confirmed the previous statement, when it reported its latest quarterly Augmented/Virtual Reality Report and Deals Database.

“Monetization is part of the conversation, but as a company and industry we’re still at the very early stages of exploring what that might be, how it would be best produced and how it should be presented.” Jessica Yu, deputy managing editor and global head of visuals, The Wall Street Journal[13]

Shaping more engaging user experiences

360° video motivates viewers to watch and interact more and it drives viewers to share, subscribe, and view other videos. 360° videos also have a higher click-through rate, meaning that viewers are more interested in checking out the full-length version of the video. The main challenge in this respect is that the access to virtual reality viewers is still limited, and this in a twofold manner.

First, the most rewarding way to experience VR and 360° video is through the use of dedicated headsets. Despite efforts from e.g. Google to bring VR closer to people through its affordable Cardboard turning smartphones into VR and 360° headsets, the full immersive experience requires expensive and high-end headsets that are not yet widely adopted, limiting the user base for immersive journalism. Second, most people, across generations, still rely heavily on traditional media platforms. News users still want fast, cheap and easy ways to consume news. VR and 360° on the contrary offers long, immersive and interactive experiences that are unique, but also very different from the quick updates and news alerts many people turn to on their mobile devices.

“We think people will continue to consume journalism in the fastest, most efficient, most accessible (which often means cheapest) way possible. Until there is live VR reporting from the front lines that can be accessed easily on a device while on the go, VR has a long way to go to replace what is there.” Corey Key, vice president of digital, corporate marketing and research, Discovery Communications [10]

News organizations — for example The New York Times’ NYT VR mobile application and The Guardian’s VR apphave tried to build a VR ecosystem by giving away cardboard viewers to encourage people to download mobile apps and look at the VR storytelling at home. Also, important social media platforms have introduced the concept of 360-degree storytelling, such as Facebook 360 and YouTube 360, which to some extent provides their users an easy access to the VR experience. It will remain to be seen if these efforts will result in the wide-spread adoption of VR and 360° video.

Reduced production costs due to technological improvements

As mentioned above, the capturing and production of VR and 360° videos are expensive. However, “participants in the VR marketplace are developing more integrated cameras. Some keep the strategy of using many lenses in left-and-right pairs of “eyes.” (Paired lenses are necessary for stereoscopic footage, which can theoretically produce greater fidelity, and therefore immersion and presence.) Others are aiming for high-quality, 360° video, but with one lens per direction, abandoning stereoscopy in favor of simplicity, lower cost, and weight”[9].

A positive signal might be that some companies are working towards creating cheaper cameras that can capture 360° photos and videos. For instance, in late 2015, Ricoh released the Theta S, and in 2016, it released Theta SC. They are handheld cameras that are small in size and that can shoot 360° still photos and sufficiently qualitative 360° video with the click of a button. These devices can be convenient for capturing breaking news in VR style. The Ricoh Theta S and SC do not require any post-production stitching, and are quite affordable compared to the other cameras mentioned above.

On the flip side, due to the constant development of technology, there will always be new and better equipment. Small news companies and freelance journalists, whose budgets may barely cover their needs, will have a hard time “catching up” with the newly released hardware and software. Thus, an advisable opinion for them would be to rent out these tools and software rather than invest in them.

New forms of journalism, new norms and ethics

“The basic tenets of journalism isn’t really changing, we still follow the same principles and norms, what is different is the sense of being on scene whether you’re watching a guy fall collapse from hunger or feel like you’re in the middle of a bomb scene” — Nonny de la Peña, VR pioneer.

360° coverage comes with a few risks, such as the inability of excluding potentially graphic aspects from a scene or exposing one’s privacy, and creating uncomfortable, frightening or misleading experiences through the “immersive experience” of 360° videos. Nevertheless, the latter should not be regarded as a disadvantage since one of the main purposes of VR journalism is to push the audience to empathize with the situation.

“We first got interested in virtual reality when we saw a refugee camp film made for the U.N. We showed it to some people around the newsroom, and they were just blown away. Hardened editors on the international desk would take off the headset and say, ‘Listen, I’ve edited hundreds of stories about refugees, and I’ve never had an experience like this one.’” — Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine — interview with Consumer Reports.

At the same time, VR prompts the question: how accurate and factual should a virtual story be? Is it ethical to abbreviate an experience to only incorporate the most impacting moments? In the natural consolidation of detailed reality into a story, the threshold for ethical manipulation is hazy [12]. In their efforts to convey a strong emotional message through immersive experiences, journalists will have to carefully guard the balance between story and facts.


Final notes: the virtual road ahead

“It’s one thing to impress people with a demo. It’s another to keep them coming back. And you have to have compelling content to do that.” Palmer Luckey, co-founder, Oculus, in Fast Company [11].

At the moment, VR and 360° are experiencing a strong momentum. Whether the technology will consolidate in the field of journalism — and in general — remains to be seen. It is common-sense for journalists to fear whether or not viewers will want to continue watching these videos after the initial “trendy” or “cool”factor wears off. It will anyways be a challenge for them to create content in a way that would encourage news users to stick around and remain engaged. Jeremy Bailenson, founder of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, argues that “the vast majority of news stories are not suited for VR. It should be used to tell stories that are suited to its key strength — putting a viewer in the scene”[14].

Hence, journalists should mainly use 360° storytelling to report, for example, post-war repercussions, controversial stories (such as the repercussions of drunk driving or life in solitary confinement), and other social, political and economic stories/documentaries such as climate change. Also they should use VR in their storytelling for environments where people are unlikely to go, for instance war zones. In other words, cover stories where a 360-degree view of the scenery would deepen the viewer’s empathy towards the story beyond a written narrative, photos or regular video.

“I see it being part of journalism, the same way video is, and photography, text and interactives. Not every story is worth or requires being told in VR — so it is a question of choosing wisely.” Mariana Santos, director of interactive and animation, Fusion.

There is a long history of writers and producers aiming “to place the journalism audience in the story,” according to the TOW Center report. If this new approach helps achieve that, we may wonder if, perhaps, “barriers between self and the other begin to erode [and] virtual reality offers the promise of further breaking the ‘fourth wall’ of journalism, wherein those represented become individuals possessing agency.”

VR and 360° video is rapidly developing; hence, journalists should keep in mind this medium’s potential in the industry their part of. This technology is actually built for film and gaming worlds. Journalism is a small section in this emerging ecosystem. This should encourage journalists to jump in and experiment which could lead to the further development of VR technologies and processes that suit their needs and benefit their audiences.

To conclude, virtual reality is another disruption of traditional journalistic competences with technology that has started creating waves in the field of journalism. These technologies not only have increased elements of accuracy, reach, feel but also have started questioning the ‘human element’ of ‘newsmakers ’or ‘news consumers.’ If used appropriately, VR and 360° could offer promising paths for journalistic innovation.

Journalism trends & technologies

A collection of White Papers addressing new trends & technologies in journalism, brought to you by experts-to-be from the Master in Journalism and Media in Europe at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. References: https://medium.com/@ikepicone/references-4d8e004593a

Talar Kijilian

Written by

Journalism trends & technologies

A collection of White Papers addressing new trends & technologies in journalism, brought to you by experts-to-be from the Master in Journalism and Media in Europe at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. References: https://medium.com/@ikepicone/references-4d8e004593a

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