Virtual news: The future of journalism?

Viewing the future with virtual reality

With all of the new tools available for creating and editing videos on the go, it’s no surprise that there has been a recent explosion of online video in the past few years. Most social networks, including Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, have integrated these video tools into their apps allowing everyone and anyone to distribute videos to anyone on the web.

2015 was the year for both Facebook 360 and Youtube 360, allowing users to pan around a scene in full circle, with out the use of a headset. It is evident that VR is making it’s way into our everyday lives, so the question is, will VR be a part of the future of journalism? The answer, yes. Using VR in journalism has the potential to attract many young viewers to news like never before and place them inside a story they otherwise might not of had interest in.

Journalist Nonny de la Pena, also known as ‘the Godmother of virtual reality’ is on a mission to tell hard-hitting, real life stories using VR goggles. I recently watched a Ted Talk where she demonstrated how journalism could and is evolving into the world of virtual reality. Her argument is that if we as an audience could for example, ‘feel’ the power of gunfire overhead in Syria, we would understand these tragedies much more than we can from a headline. Feeling present at the scene of something so horrifying would naturally have a much larger impact on the viewer.

News organisations have already began to produce powerful storytelling through VR, creating a deeper connection between the story and the viewer. It’s an exciting concept to think we will be able to experience something, that without VR, we otherwise wouldn’t, but I don’t believe it would be feasible for all news stories.

Stanford Journalism students created a guide for using VR in Journalism. They argue that journalists should only consider using VR in their storytelling for:

  1. Places that are hard to get to or where people are unlikely to go.
  2. Where being in the actual space deepens one’s understanding of a story beyond a written narrative, photos or regular video.
  3. And most crucially, following on the previous point: where turning your head side-to-side is essential. If all the action is front and center — say at a political debate — you don’t need spherical video.
  4. The reality is that most news stories are not appropriate for the technology. Right now, it is more of a complement to other forms of reporting than a platform that can replace them.

Many news outlets have already begun the move to virtual reality. The Guardian released their first piece, 6x9 in April 2016. This experiment showed what journalism could look like in VR, placing the audience into a solitary confinement prison cell and letting them experience the same hallucinations and psychological damage isolated prisoners do. The New York Times has launched one of the first attempts of 360 daily reporting with it’s 360-degree video stories from around the world.

When can we expect VR journalism to go mainstream? The future sees editors and publishers finding ways to tell stories through VR on mobile devices. It appears that VR is going to be a big area of experimentation in 2017. Late last year, Google News Lab and the Knight Foundation announced Journalism 360, which is a community of producers, storytellers and educators, all involved in the world of immersive storytelling. The organisation is encouraging innovative projects and has a fund of $500,000 to give away as award grants.

Newsrooms still need time to properly adapt to the idea of VR news reporting. Zillah Watson, works as editorial lead for BBC Research & Development says:

“We need to start learning all over again because VR is a completely new language. We can no longer tell the viewer where to look. Old rules just don’t work any more. For news it’s a gamechanger because 360 video is arguably the most unbiased and freeing for the user.”

I think the most important thing for news outlets to remember when VR journalism goes mainstream, is to make sure it is essential that the user needs to be there. The user needs to be a part of the story and play an important role, or it won’t matter or have as much of an effect. If the story can be told better through text, video or pictures, there is no need for VR.

It’s exciting to see journalists keeping up with the cutting edge changes in technology and bringing immersive experiences for users to life. Even though virtual reality has come and gone before, with the merge of VR and the open Web, it appears VR is definately here to stay.

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