Global perspectives of immersive journalism

Sarah Jones

VR is such a fascinating medium for journalism because two huge factors of VR are the feeling of transporting you to some place, and secondarily, but just as importantly, connecting you to the people inside of that place.

Chris Milk 2015

Technology companies like Oculus and Samsung have been instrumental in driving immersive journalism forward. With support in the form of development funding, news organizations have been encouraged to look at how immersive journalism can develop in the virtual reality space. This has been evident in the form of initiatives like Oculus’VR for Good and HTC Vive’s VR for Impact. Technology' companies have seen journalism and factual storytelling as a way to reach a new audience, away from the gaming and computer science industries where it has previously dominated. There has been indicative support for this. With The New York Times sending 1.2 million headsets to subscribers in November 2016 and virtual reality (VR) units or studios developing in companies like A1 Jazeera, BBC and The Guardian, new ways of using the technology to drive journalism have been identified.

At the heart of this is the widespread belief thatVR has the potential to change perspectives in understanding stories. It is the idea that stories told through VR can “transport viewers to places and events - to understand the world in new ways” (Watson 2017,7). In the seminal paper on immersive journalism, Nonny de la Pena defined it as the production of news where “people can gain first-person experiences of the events or situation described in news stories” (2010, 291). The ability and impact that transporting an audience to a different place to engage in a news story in a direct way is contextualized in conversations around empathy and ethics, as discussed in Chapter 5 and 8 respectively in this book. What needs to be understood here is the positioning of immersive journalism in a global context.

With this in mind, this chapter analyzes the importance of immersive journalism to understand global issues and perspectives and the challenges that this raises when faced with a global digital divide. Through a series of case studies, immersive journalism practices from across the world will be identified and the impact that this has on the journalist, the journalism, and the experience.

The global context for immersive journalism

Journalism is about stories. It is about taking people to different places, providing information, and allowing for an objective account of a story to be told. The first wave of VR in the 1960s focused on the possibilities with the advancement of the technology. It was in the second wave, when the technology was more advanced and organizations like NASA could start to utilize it for education and training, that we saw the first ideas emerge around how VR could be applied to media practices. The early work on the ideas ofVR (Hamit 1993; Rheingold 1991) began introducing VR as the next logical step for communications, with Biocca and Levy (1995) theorizing that VR would enable journalists to “conquer time and space” by creating “a sense on the part of audiences of being present at distant, newsworthy locations and events”. When narratives are developed to transport an audience to different places and cultures, the necessity to understand the global context of immersive journalism is clear.

What is evident, though, is the digital divide: the idea that there is an inequality in access and information to communication technologies. In 2019, there are still groups in America with limited access to the internet, with 30% of rural America still lacking what the Federal Communications Commission consider as adequate broadband (Politico 2018). This includes communities within certain income brackets, ethnicities, and geographical locations, which then has implications for employment, education, and the economy. It is even more prevalent when we look at the digital divide globally, where the “Internet has developed unevenly throughout the world” (Guilen & Suarez 2005,681).

The 2018 Digital Use Suite (We Are Global and Hoot Suite, Kemp 2018) showed slight improvements in the distribution of internet access across the world. Internet penetration rates are found to be still low across Central Africa (12%) and Southern Asia (36%), but they are also the fastest-growing regions for adoptions. The number of users in Africa has increased by more than 20% year on year. Users in Benin, Sierra Leone, Niger, and Mozambique have also more than doubled in one year.

When considering the global digital usage in the context of journalism, the number of mobile phones is also important to consider, a valuable addition to the journalist’s toolbox and something that will be discussed later in this chapter. The same report found more than two-thirds of the global population has a mobile phone, but still below 50% in Central Africa.The connection speeds vary considerably, which is important to note when this is looked on as a tool for digital storytelling and connectivity. Norway, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates all boast speeds in excess of 50 Mbps, compared with Bangladesh at 5.2 Mbps and Venezuela at 7.9 Mbps.

The rise of digital journalism, responding to changes in platforms and technologies, has been as a direct result of the use of mobiles, as well as by innovations in digital narratives (Vazquez-FI errero & Lopez-Garcia 2017), so the existence of a digital divide raises concerns around representation of voices when considering the global context of immersive journalism. There is an increase in the adoption of digital journalism, but the divide will continue to exist when countries cannot freely access the technology.

The 2018 ICFJ report, The State of Technology in Global Newsrooms, addressed some of these challenges, providing a clear indication of the ways in which the digital divide is impacting news production and consumption. The findings of the report detail the digital media skills used regularly in the newsroom. What is classed as first-tier skills are those used by at least half of the newsrooms across the world and include stories and comments on social media (72%) and using digital photography (61%). Video production skills and audio production skills are classed as second-tier skills, used by at least one-third of newsrooms. Video skills are used in 49% and audio 42%. Mobile reporting is used in 34% newsrooms. The third-tier skills are where we find journalists working with VR and 360-degree video, however it is represented in only 21% newsrooms.

New revenue models for news businesses have adapted and changed over the past decade (REF) and this is especially difficult for newsrooms in developing countries. More than 70% of organizations in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America/ Caribbean found this to be a major challenge in adapting to new revenue models (ICFJ 2018) .The rise of immersive journalism and virtual reality platforms was found to be particularly problematic and the biggest challenge for newsrooms in South Asia (53%), East/Southeast Asia (47%) and sub-Saharan Africa (46%). It was the least of a challenge for newsrooms in Europe, with only 15% finding it problematic.

With 21% of global newsrooms reporting to be using VR, this may be more down to teams experimenting with 360-degree filming or still photography on a tilt-and-rotate platform on social media. Certainly previous studies (Jones 2017) demonstrate the number of newsrooms producing VR regularly is significantly lower. The concern is around representation, with the question needing to be asked as to how do we ensure stories are being represented by journalists on the ground? The majority of stories produced within an immersive journalism format are usually around issues in the developing world (Jones 2017) to allow the idea of working in someone else’s shoes, or essentially meeting the purpose of journalism “to provide people with information they need to understand the world” (Kovach & Rosenstiel 2014). It is essential to show that work is being done on the ground by journalists to establish immersive journalism practices in a global context.

 
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