Immersive journalism for a global perspective
With support from organizations like Journalism 360, Oculus andVive, organizations have been able to develop immersive journalism practices. Through analysis of these organizations the potentiality of immersive journalism to offer authenticity of the story is understood. The organizations that have been developing since 2015 onwards are all committed to storytelling from a diverse range of voices to prevent the portrayal of communities and cultures through a foreign lens, something that will now be discussed.
Electric South was developed to build an ecosystem of immersive journalists in Africa. Based in Cape Town, South Africa, the organization operates under the belief that “new technologies must open up spaces for original voices and underrepresented narratives” (Electric South). The argument for this came out of a need for diversity and inclusivity within emerging media. As Kopp argued in 2017, “the problem is there is no balance in the African narrative being told - the pieces were all made by people from North America and Europe and they were not telling the whole story” (Kopp 2017).
The challenges facing the developing world in diversifying storytelling through new technologies is clear. As Kopp argues, it is harder and more expensive to buy equipment, it is harder to get the equipment in and out of countries, visas are expensive and difficult to get, the community is small so it is harder to share resources, there are barriers and complications for distribution, and phones have limited data or WiFi connectivity.
Despite the challenges, the global need for creating networks of diverse immersive journalists is evident as a way to avoid blind spots that emerge if only one group of society dominates a particular field, and it is through an ecosystem of inclusion that avoids this (Sinclair 2017).Through a residency approach, immersive storytellers in Africa have come together annually since 2015 with Electric South to collaborate, develop skills and look at emerging media forms to tell stories. The programs have been supported by the Ford Foundation. As one participant said following the 2018 camp, “they plant the seed for the new generation to come” (Afande 2018).
Although not specific to immersive forms, the workshops cover augmented reality, virtual reality, machine learning, and depth kit perceptions. It means that the participants are contributing to the development of immersive media, how it is used, produced, and consumed, before the rules have been set. As mainstream journalism has developed, it has relied on learning from previous traditions of narrative, imagery and style, whether online formats (Steensen 2010), radio and podcasting (Berry 2016; Cwynar 2015) or television (Wood 1986;Tuchman 1978).The rules in immersive media still have not been set and as RYOT co-founder Bryan Mooser (in Hernandez 2017) argues “journalism is changing”. Due to the complexities of the combination of technical, artistry, and journalistic understandings, there is a collaborative approach with no one skillset dominating. This is allowing for inclusivity and levelling the playing field for diversity. As Kombo Chapfika, an Electric South 2018 participant, said,“there are no rules, the hierarchies haven’t been fully set yet”.
Similarly, it echoes the driving force behind Contrast VR, perhaps one of the most established immersive studios, with the explicit mandate to promote diversity and inclusivity in immersive journalism.
Contrast VR was founded in 2017 as the immersive studio ofAlJazeera. It originally began as the testing lab within A1 Jazeera Digital with the aim to explore emerging technology and how that could be used for more immersive storytelling and, specifically, for journalism. Zahara Rasoul is the Editorial Lead, noting in 2018 that the main challenge is an understanding of what can be done; we have the tech but you don’t have the storytelling that is actually going to have the impact that we think the technology combined with the storytelling can have” (Rasoul 2018).
The aim for Contrast is authenticity and to use immersive journalism as a way to break down the view of stories being told through the lens of a foreign reporter. Through a project where cameras and training were provided, they sought to enable journalists who did not have access to the kit to take charge of their own narratives.
One of the goals of Contrast is to be able to enable local journalists and storytellers to take charge of their own narratives and to tell their own stories rather than only foreign journalists going into a place and telling those stories.
The initiative, My People, Our Stones, has trained filmmakers across the Za’atari refugee camp, South Sudan, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is seeking to add authentic voices to the concerns around representation in the media, something that has been the subject of a large body of academic research in recent years (Krimsky 2002; Heinrich 2012; Joye 2009), where there has been a disparity in the voices and tone of stories when presented through a foreign reporter’s lens. This was clearly reflected in the comments from one of the Contrast VR workshops,
When residents of the favela see a local journalist that is covering a story, they trust that the narrative won’t be stereotyped or told in a distorted way. But when there is a journalist from outside there is a relationship of fear and even revolt, as favelas and their residents are almost always depicted as marginalized by the corporate media.
Thamyra Thamara, in Contrast, Medium 2018
More than 100 journalists and filmmakers have been trained by Contrast in two years (Contrast 2018) using the technology to give agency to different communities. Joi Lee, a Contrast producer, argues, “when those impacted by the issue are at the forefront of shaping the narrative, the stories become more informed and nuanced to reflect the realities on the ground” (Lee, Contrast 2018).
The above two case studies demonstrate the interest and desire to develop skills and expertise in immersive media to promote diversity and inclusivity. This is applicable in terms of content but also within the development of an emerging field. However, despite a range of workshops and interest in showing work, without securing funding for developing immersive content, the market becomes fragmented. There is a need for creators to continually develop and build on work, testing new methods and technologies as they develop, otherwise there are no resources for people to get better (Kopp, in conversation 2019). The impact that this is having in the Global South is clear. There is government resource in countries including Canada (CMF), France (CNC), and the UK (Creative XR), so the industry is developing. With funding limited in the Global South for development and production, “people aren’t building a body of work” (Kopp in conversation 2019).
Distribution is also a key concern with finding and engaging audiences to show and make immersive media more accessible. Electric South has taken this with a top-down and bottom-up approach by targeting museums and art galleries at the top end and libraries and community spaces at the bottom. The driver has been to take it out of “self-selecting” spaces (Kopp, in conversation 2019) and to ensure that access to technology finds a wide group of people. It is a similar approach to that of NowHere Media in India and the VR experience, Love Matters India (www. lovematters.in). With technological challenges in the infrastructure, the experience needed to have an offline distribution channel for maximum impact. The experience was launched in restaurants in Delhi and Mumbai. In a partnership with the Delhi Metro, viewing booths were set up with mobile-based headsets, but there were challenges with electricity and limitations to streaming experiences.
Research in the case studies has shown the challenge for immersive journalism across the world is aligned to technological capabilities and the digital divide. With a significant need to promote diversity and inclusivity within the news medium, it can be argued that lessons from the rise of mobile journalism can help embed the industry to offer diverse voices and native narratives.