SXSWorld February 2016


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2 0 S X S W o r l d | F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 6 | S X S W. C O M ractitioners say it's the next best thing to being there. With immersive journalism (or IJ, aka virtual reality (VR) storytelling), the consumer uses a special headset and com- plementary app to experience a 360-degree visual simulation of a news story, created by producers using camera arrays and other types of VR technology, with real-time sounds and interviews incor- porated into the piece. As IJ pioneer Nonny de la Peña describes it, "Immersive jour- nalism essentially means using virtual reality to place viewers on scene at an event—to make them feel like they're actually present as things unfold." In the past year, news stalwarts ranging from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Outside and the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University have embraced the technology. The New York Times took the plunge in a big way last November when it mailed 1.2 million Google Cardboard viewers to subscribers, so they could experience its VR film "The Displaced," about children who've been displaced by war. The project was a collaboration between the The New York Times Magazine and Chris Milk's VR company, Vrs, with an app created to be compatible with iOS 8 + and Android 4.3 +. That project may be the farthest-reaching of any so far, but for de la Peña, a documentarian, journalist and founder of Emblematic Group in Los Angeles, IJ is a medium whose time has come. Sometimes called "the godmother of virtual reality," de la Peña worked as a corre- spondent for Newsweek magazine for many years—but she's probably better known for pushing the frontiers of this new journalism. Her first foray, a simulation of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp on the online virtual world Second Life more than eight years ago, led her to other projects, including "Hunger in Los Angeles," which used a prototype developed by Mark Bolas of the University of Southern California and future Oculus founder, Palmer Luckey. The film aired at Sundance in 2014 to approving (and often emotional) audiences. Since then, de la Peña and her company have produced VR pieces on domestic violence, immigra- tion and migrant-abuse issues, including the recent "Project Syria," which was commissioned by the World Economic Forum. In January, de la Peña debuted a Planned Parenthood piece at Sundance, and late last year, the Knight Foundation gave her a $580,000 grant to partner with Frontline "to make at least three VR documentaries, and to craft guidelines on best practices for VR in journalism," de la Peña says. Her concern with best practices is timely, since many traditional journalists are concerned about the ethical guide- lines in this emerging format. Columbia University journalism professor and Associated Press standards editor Tom Kent posed several ethics questions on last summer: " ... How real is virtual reality intended to be? Where's the line between actual event and the producer's artistic license? Is VR journalism supposed to be the event itself, an artist's conception of the event or something akin to a historical novel ... ?" Kent and others have said that producers need to make clear what they're hoping to accomplish in their pre-roll disclosures. Further, Kent said, the producers should post their own ethics codes, as sug- gested by the Online News Association's "Build Your Own Ethics Code" project. Also, the journalism establishment has to factor in that VR has been described as an "empathy" tool. And while "straight news" innately conjures a kind of empathy, its primary job is to tell a story that is as free of bias as possible. VR as a way to bring gritty realism to the consumer's experience is a powerful thing, but creating empathy for empathy's sake can be a slippery slope. "I actually think that philosophically, immersive journalism is very much aligned with traditional storytelling. There has always been a strain of journalism that aspired to make you feel as though, as Walter Cronkite put it, 'you are there,' and VR is in some ways the ultimate expression of that goal," argues de la Peña. "Where it dif- fers radically is in format and technique. Most of the VR that people have seen at this point is 360-degree video, so there's a tendency to assume that this is a variant of traditional filmmaking." "What my company, Emblematic Group, specializes in is volu- metric, or 'walk around' VR," she continues. "We mainly build scenarios that the viewer can actually move around inside of and interact with. This is the next big leap for VR, and all the new head- sets coming out next year -- Oculus, Vive, Sony -- will let you do this. You have to lose the notion of a camera altogether, and instead think about putting a person's body into a three-dimensional space. It's an entirely new discipline, with its own rules and protocols, all of which are still being worked out." Some journalism figures see VR as just another step in the evo- lution of reporting. Austin-based Bill Minutaglio, an award-winning reporter, author and University of Texas at Austin journalism professor, isn't scared of IJ at all. "Anything that brings more people to consuming the news is great ... In a way, it sounds like interactive television to me, interactive photography," Minutaglio says. "Some stories are probably suited for it ... As in any kind of journalism, manipulation, image doctoring, editing, is as important as anything. But in good hands, that should not be a problem ... I think Timothy Leary would approve." T Nonny de la Peña will be one of several speak- ers during the new VR/AR Convergence Track (March 16-18) at SXSW 2016. Is News Reporting's Future in Immersive Journalism? by Shermakaye baSS P N o n ny D e La Pe ñ a PA I S L E Y S M I T H

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