Immersive journalism as witnessing

Lars Nyre and Joakim Vindenes

VR is nothing if not spectacular. It may be difficult to envision that, instead of getting mobile news via written text, photos and videos, and phone-size screens, you would get the news in the perceptual richness of head-mounted displays that allow a 360-degree visual and auditory sphere in which the body of the user is immersed. Technologies are launched in improved versions, and the skillsets and creativity of content producers are also growing.

What’s in it for journalism? It is established knowledge that VR narratives are effective for creating first-person perspectives, or what we propose to call “witnessing” (Peters 2001). In the context of immersive journalism, de la Pena et al. (2010, 299) write that “virtual reality systems are uniquely fitted to deliver first-person experiences of stories that appear in the news”, and that “immersive journalism offers the opportunity of a uniquely different level of understanding contrasted to reading the printed page or passively watching audiovisual material”.

Witnessing seems to be a storytelling technique with potential in a still emerging journalistic practice. In their 2015 report on VR Journalism, the Tow Center writes how VR “represents a new narrative form, one for which technical and stylistic norms are in their infancy” (Owen et al. 2015) and where audience behavior is undecided. For example, traditional visual aesthetics are oriented to the rectangular frame. In 360-degree video it is a striking storytelling dilemma that there is no rectangular frame for the photojournalist in which to place the motif and action. Another example is that 360-degree video makes the journalist/cameraperson visible in the footage unless steps are taken to avoid it by placing the camera on a tripod, or having a cameraperson wear it on their head.There is a need for conceptualization and analysis that would help to clarify things and give audiences a more directed and meaningful experience. Otherwise VR stories may risk feeling empty and shallow, and therefore unable to engage audiences in a proper way. The Knight Foundation’s 2016 report onVirtual Reality in Journalism states that the expressive

novelties may be a “challenge to journalistic storytellers more familiar with taking the audience along a single narrative ride” (Doyle et al. 2016).

The media industry will no doubt continue to explore storytelling possibilities by trial and error, regulated by their rate of market popularity and technological developments. And in addition to journalistic innovation there is room for more education-driven design experiments. We believe that higher education institutions (HEIs) should explore VR journalism at the bachelor and master level, so that students could contribute with genuinely valuable skillsets and techniques that will have been developed under more open, self-critical, and reflective conditions than what the hectic media industry is able to provide.

In this chapter we report on a design experiment where VR stories were made as mandatory coursework. Four quite different journalistic stories are analyzed in light of two theoretical traditions. Phenomenology explains the experience of being present at the scene and helps to describe what witnessing means in this context. Narrative theory shows the importance of the position that is implied for the user in the narrative. We apply these theoretical perspectives in an analysis of the VR stories scene by scene and show what type of witnessing they should be characterized as being. At the end, there is a discussion of the journalistic value or appropriateness of such types of witnessing.

Method: a pedagogical design experiment

The material we analyze in this article was created in a pedagogical design experiment conducted in 2018. In the learning sciences there is a longstanding tradition of doing design experiments with student groups, trying to teach them new skills and techniques (Brown 1992) and design-based research (Barab & Squire 2004; Collins, Joseph, and Bielaczyc 2004). Such studies involve making interventions in existing educational settings by introducing new technologies, and they are intended to create positive changes in the learning practices and at the same time allow researchers to study the implications of the intervention. Teachers want to make changes to the mediating technologies involved in coursework, such as introducing 360-degree video where the course previously used 16:9 frame video, and to the organizing of learning activities inspired by a given pedagogical goal, like challenging the students to narrate in VR while simultaneously adhering to established journalistic values. In an earlier design experiment, Nyre, Guribye, & Gynnild (2018, 82-83) combined innovation pedagogy with drone-flying and 3D-modelling for journalism. Building on experience from the former study, the method for the present design experiment was as follows: [1]

and a monopod stand. The students were also required to attend mandatory technical training, wherein they were taught VR programming, principles of 360-video production (such as placement of camera, editing, and tips and tricks), and 3D modelling through photogrammetry.The students also attended sessions on storyboarding and visual aesthetics for each separate scene.

  • 2) Teachers made a working definition ofjournalism.The students were supposed to create genre-consistent journalism with the new tools. A working definition of journalism was formulated in communication with the students: 1) use proper sources for all information presented, 2) no use of hidden microphones or cameras, and 3) be careful not to violate people’s right to privacy. 4) Realistic reconstructions are allowed. Notice that the concept of “witnessing” was not central to the design experiment, but emerged analytically after the fact.
  • 3) Students storyboarded, shot, and edited everything themselves. Principles from innovation pedagogy say that students should make as many decisions as possible, while teachers should make as few as possible (Darso 2011,15).The presumption is that students will learn more intensely under conditions where they are responsible for exploring the uncertain terrain. We accomplished this by asking the groups to present their productions five times during the semester, with specific requirements and deadlines for each. They received criticism and technical feedback from lecturers, media industry guests, and fellow students. At the end of the course there was a public demo in Media City Bergen attended by around a hundred people who could all trial the VR stories.

The team of researchers and teachers was aware of an ethical dilemma with our approach. The primary author of this text was the main lecturer on the course, and the second author was the main VR instructor. There was a risk of blurring the boundary between teaching and research, so that the students could see us as powerful graders and collegial researchers. We needed to make clear demarcations between our roles. At the beginning of the course we informed the students about the design experiment governing the course, and they attended several research events where VR journalism was discussed. In order not to confuse the student productions with empirical material generated by researchers, we made sure that their VR stories were presented as autonomous productions with due credit given at a public event and on the ViSmedia website. Students and lecturers are all thanked in an afterword to this chapter to further emphasize their contribution. The following analysis was conceived and conducted several months after the course had been completed, and our considerations therefore did not influence the production of the stories.

  • [1] Students were given plenty of time to use the technology and develop newskills. Students needed to acquire the necessary motor skills for dealing withthe creative possibilities of using the novel technology. The students had touse the equipment provided by the university. For each group, this compriseda Samsung GEAR VR Head-Mounted Display, a Ricoh Theta V 360 camera,
 
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