Journalism 360: Do we really care?

We live in a hyperconnected society, full of media noise; do we really need another platform for storytelling?

When that platform is focused on experiential storytelling and can deepen understanding and engage the disengaged, then of course we do.

Especially when it is VR.

But here’s the battle: Things need to change.

When Twitter came, we had to find ways to engage an audience in 140 characters. With Instagram, we looked for those strong images that create a narrative, and the online audience had to adapt to mobile browsing. Now we are searching for the right way to tell a story in VR.

Inside #Chungking360: exploring rule breaking in VR to create an experiential film

Immersive storytelling is completely different from traditional journalism and requires a different mindset. It all comes down to experience, so we have to change our thinking about how we want the audience to explore a story.

At the moment, we are at a stage of experimentation when all of us are learning new ways of telling stories. There’s a danger of overkill, and one of my worries is that people will have a bad first experience and then never use VR again. My awesome friend Kim Majkut refers to it as “the VR first kiss.” You want your first kiss to be good so you’ll go back for more. If it’s bad, you’ll just write off the whole technology.

Let’s make the virtual first kiss great.

With so much content out there, I started to research how immersive stories are being received and how 360 film can play with journalism. It’s about breaking the conventions of storytelling and thinking about how the story can be experienced in multiple ways. This is challenging, as it is impossible to predict exactly how viewers will engage.

I examined all the VR content produced by news organizations in 2015 and 2016 to understand how the stories were told. The average duration of a 360 story was just over 6 minutes — a lot longer than the average flat video story. Shots lasted longer too — 20 to 30 seconds, rather than the 3 seconds typical of a television news shot. In VR, viewers need more time to absorb the story and look around.

Traditional broadcasters, such as ABC News and the UK’s Sky News, have stuck with “comfortable,” reporter-led narratives, whereas other outlets have experimented with character-led stories. Reporter-led narratives are less of a jump into an emerging platform. The story structure remains the same, but the technology allows the audience to look around.

Storytelling in 360 or VR is great at engaging the disengaged and finding a new audience for this platform — often an audience that is more switched off from the news.

“Get out of my space” Invasion of personal space: a key concern in 360 storytelling

Examination of audience feedback revealed these key points:

Narrative: There was no clear preference for a reporter-led narrative over a character-driven one. In fact, viewers found the physical presence of the reporter to be distracting and restrictive. They generally didn’t feel as free to look around the environment, as they felt they needed to keep their attention on the reporter. Feedback also showed that character-led stories were far more engaging overall, allowing the audience to connect directly with the people in the story.

Empathy: We all talk about this medium as the ultimate empathy machine, but the results aren’t yet supporting that claim. It’s true that all participants in our studies felt more involved in the story, but while that connection increased their understanding, it didn’t make them more empathetic.

Distraction-free viewing: How great is it to be able to make a film and know that the viewer isn’t going to be tweeting, Snapchatting or making a coffee while watching it? One of my favorite things about VR at the moment is that the audience is completely immersed and focused on that one story. There’s no multitasking when you’re in a headset. One participant commented: “There is no possibility of distractions like there is when you are watching the news. I can’t play on my tablet or phone while occasionally glancing up at the screen.”

Personal space: You know the feeling when someone gets too close, intruding on your personal space? Well, in VR that feeling is even worse. There has to be a 1-meter free space around the camera — unless you intend for the viewer to feel uncomfortable, which I have done in some of my films. People in the story getting close to the camera made some of our participants want to take off their headsets. This effect on viewers has become especially evident with “Vice News VR: Millions March” — a VR film where the reporter, Alice Speri, takes you through the protests in New York. The crowd presses against you as you navigate the streets, and that can be uncomfortable.

“FOMO”: When you create a story that your audience can experience in different ways, some viewers will fear that they are missing out on something really important. You can provide audio and other directional cues to guide the experience, but your viewers can fail to notice or choose to ignore them. Nevertheless, fear of missing out can lead to multiple views, and that’s a good thing!

Let’s play.

The data I’ve been collecting shows that VR is an amazing platform for storytelling. It helps connection and it helps understanding, but we are still at the playtime stage of figuring things out. That in itself needs to be celebrated. We have a chance to find a new way of storytelling rooted in experience that can capture an audience in a way we’ve never been able to before.