I Storytelling

Exploring the immersive journalism landscape

Esa Sirkkunen, Jorge Vazquez-Herrero, Turo Uskali, and Heli Vaataja

Current drivers of 360-degree journalism have been mostly curious about the new medium, its possibilities, and are exploring business opportunities. The early adoption of such technolog)' is often a matter of brand-building - that is, news organizations experimenting with virtual reality (VR) want to demonstrate that their digital strategies are forward-thinking (Watson 2017). After interviewing representatives from leading US newspapers, Bosworth and Sarah (2019, 226) also conclude, “among major media companies that failing to experiment in immersive and experimental stories will mean losing a race”.

Thus far, 360-degree journalism has been generally a testbed for the most prominent media companies. For example, the BBC produced the very first entirely 360-degree TV episode of the technology' program Click in March 2016. One crucial factor driving these experiments has been the activity of tech companies like Samsung and Google, who sponsored major journalistic institutions such as The New York Times and Euronews in 2017. Major platforms like Facebook andYouTube have already built platforms for 360-degree content with the possibility for users to publish content themselves. The process of platformization (Helmond 2015; Nieborg and Poell 2018) of360-degree content and consumption is well underway.

This chapter starts with an overview of 360-degree journalism genres. We especially explore the relationship between conventional journalism and 360-degree productions. Our hypothesis is that the general narrative conventions and ethical principles of journalism are reflected in the evolving 360-degree journalism. We continue with questions regarding production and narration based on interviews with journalists making immersive journalism. We discuss suitable topics, production processes and narrative options concerning immersive journalism, especially 360- degree journalism. The data for this chapter contains findings of projects in which we have analyzed more than 100 360-degree stories (Sirkkunen, Uskali, & Vaataja 2017 a,b; Vazquez-Herrero & Lopez-Garcia 2017; Sirkkunen & Vazquez-Herrero

2018). We have analyzed the 360-degree journalism of CNN, EAST! Today, The New York Times, Euronews, the BBC, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, El Pals, and Dagens Nyheter. Additionally, we have interviewed 13 experts in immersive journalism from 2016 to 2019.Those interviewed come from the US (4), UK (1), Sweden (1), and Finland (7). Interviewees were chosen from various kinds ofjour- nalistic organizations (YLE, Helsingin Sanomat, Dagens Nyheter, the AP, Frontline), with a few people from VR production and gaming companies, tech companies, and academic teachers of VR. The interviews were done face-to-face, recorded, and conducted along a semi-structured questionnaire, each interview lasting 20 to 60 minutes.

Evolving genres

We have analyzed 360-degree content by topic, length, narration strategies, and immersive features in each 360-degree story. Analyzing various characteristics like sound, camera movement, and immersion, we wanted to grasp the multimodal (Kress 2010) affordances of 360-degree as a medium. From these findings, we built tentative genres of 360-degree journalism. We want to underscore that we are not trying to build a permanent taxonomy of 360-degree journalism. Our understanding of the genre concept highlights its unstable, dynamic nature (Kress 2010, 133). We have identified three tentative genres: 360-degree line, 360-degree news, and 360-degree documentaries. We will also touch briefly on the fourth genre, 360-degree fiction, when it is produced by media companies and disseminated on the same platforms as the journalistic pieces. We will give short descriptions of each genre in the following.

First, 360-degree line can be compared to live television or radio in that 360- degree equipment transmits live footage, and the sound flows from an interesting environment. It gives users options to look around and obtain a full panorama of the event. For example, 360-degree live has been used to transmit NBA games and other sports events, concerts, town meetings, and political spectacles such as President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2016. However, live streaming in 360- degree is not a genre solely for media houses. Moreover, user-generated 360- degree live on YouTube, Periscope and Facebook is becoming increasingly popular (Schaerlaeckens 2017; Steinberg 2018; Cohen 2018).

Perhaps the most-produced genre of 360-degree journalism thus far is 360- degree news. With a duration from one to three minutes, users can visit distant places, explore the wonders of nature and art exhibitions, or visit war zones and refugee camps. The most active newsroom has been The New York Times, which in 2016— 18 produced 351 360-degree news pieces, following Euronews with 144 pieces (Sirkkunen & Vazquez-Herrero 2018). Samsung sponsored both companies. The New York Times' project The Daily 360 was shot across 57 countries by 200 different journalists. According to The New York Times, the videos gathered 94 million views on Facebook and two million views on YouTube (Willens 2017).

Exploring the immersive journalism landscape IS

In our analysis, we found an interesting difference in storytelling between The New York Times and Euronews. Euronews has adopted 360-degree as part of their reporters’ work process. This means Enronews reporters use narration more familiar from TV reporting, for example journalists’ voiceover narration or reporting visibly on the spot. The New York Times chose a different path. The New York Times’ reporting lets sources tell their stories and keeps the journalist mostly invisible and silent, as Figure 2.1 shows.

When analyzing 100 360-degree news videos by The New York Times and Enronews, we identified three different narration strategies (Sirkkunen & Vazquez- Herrero 2018). Following Jones (2017), we call the first two reporter-led and source- led narration (Figure 2.1).The first means the reporter is present either as a voiceover or visible in the footage. Source-led narration means the journalist/reporter is visually or vocally absent and a person tells his or her story as the only narrator. The third - also quite common - is to let the user see and hear the 360-degree content without significant interruptions from journalists or sources. We called this invisible/ neutral narration (Sirkkunen & Vazquez-Herrero 2018). Notably,journalists partially control this third strategy' by placing the camera, directing events, cutting footage and adding possible textual information or sounds.

The next subgenre is 360-degree documentaries (for example, Underworld: A Virtual Experience of the London Sewers or 6x9 by The Guardian) come close to extensive 2D documentaries regarding the amount of work and money spent on production.The duration of video documentaries varies and is mostly between four to 20 minutes. Compared to 360-degree news, more varied narrative strategies and styles are used.

Another offshoot worth mentioning is 360-degree fiction. Based on our observations, it is mainly The New York Times who has produced them. Of course, many other 360-degree production houses have focused on animated fiction, drama, or short fiction stories. As such, publishing fiction may be a wise move for

Narration strategies of The New York Times and Enronews

FIGURE 2.1 Narration strategies of The New York Times and Enronews.

a journalistic platform, because fiction broadens the scope of the content available and attracts new users to a company’s VR content. Good examples of 360-degree fiction are Lincoln in the Bardo, a version of the novel by George Saunders, or LA Noire short stories, in which a user is no casual observer but a character in a bar of 1940s’ Los Angeles. Other examples of fiction content on 360-degree are Alento (RTVE) and Cervantes VR (RTVE). Interestingly, factual journalism and fiction have appeared on the same platform before, for example in the pre-history of modern journalism in the late 19th century, when novels and poems were published first as serial stories in newspapers and magazines.

As mentioned, the field is emerging, and borderlines between tentative genres are in flux. To illustrate this dynamically evolving field, we formed a fourfold table based on the importance of photorealistic effects (the visual representation of time and space of the news) in Figure 2.2. We placed genres evolving from photorealism (upper left) to emotional realism (in the center) and finally to fiction (lower right) to illustrate the differences and continuities between genres. The fourfold figure illustrates also the interaction between documentary and fiction genres - a process that has happened previously in the history of journalism, for instance in the early development of the television documentary (see, for example, Cutrin 1993).

In conclusion, in 360-degree live and 360-degree news the photorealistic tradition is more prevalent, while in 360-degree documentaries a wider array of narrative means is allowed. For example, in the beginning of spherical VR journalism, some prominent documentarists have been using animated characters and environments with real, on-the-spot audio recordings. One pioneer, Nonny de la Pena, has coined the concept of behavioral realism (de la Pena 2017, 2) to mean the sense of presence in the story is more important in creating authenticity for the photorealistic environment, for instance.

Some 360-degree productions illustrated fourfold.The figure depicts how different codes, canons of rhetoric and narration strategies are applied in different 360 journalism subgenres

FIGURE 2.2 Some 360-degree productions illustrated fourfold.The figure depicts how different codes, canons of rhetoric and narration strategies are applied in different 360 journalism subgenres.

Our genre analysis does not say much about the intentions and experiences of the actual creators of 360-degree journalism. To get more insight into such creations, we conducted a small number of expert interviews.

 
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