In the years to come immersive journalism might gravitate in different directions depending on the variables above and more. We conclude this book by suggesting six potential trajectories for the adoption and adaption of immersive technologies in journalism in the near future.
Researching audiences will open new avenues for development
The question at the heart of any journalism scenario lies in the audience. There has been plenty of “buzz” in the aftermath of Milk’s TED talk in 2015, and also in the impact of the New York Times’ NYTVR app, which was the most downloaded on its first weekend in the same year (Jaekel 2015). But what happened to longevity? Has immersive journalism found a growing audience or are the enthusiasts still searching for more users?
An ImmerseUK survey in 2018 found that “audiences loved that they had their own story to take away with them - something they did rather than something they saw” (ImmerseUK 2018,10).The challenge is getting them into the spaces to view stories in the first place. The survey also found that of all of the immersive pieces studied, from education to gaming to social, the most popular in the audience were the perspective-shifting pieces. These videos were mostly found in immersive journalism or documentary formats. These were the Iexperiences, exemplified through videos such as Clouds Over Sidra (Milk 2015) and In My Shoes: Intimacy (Gauntlett 2016), that created physiological feelings in the audience, for instance heart rates increasing. The impact that immersive experiences have on an audience is clear: “Participants explained in discussion that they were ‘in’ rather than simply watching a story”.
Another study found that immersive journalism in which there was an element of perceived interactivity, with a character making direct eye contact with the viewer, engaged users more often and for longer periods of time. The study (Steed et al. 2018) used an immersive journalism experience by the BBC called “We Wait”. Nick North, Director of Audiences at the BBC, said: “whilst this was a small study, a 25 percent conversion rate from the We Wait VR experience is very impressive, and potentially indicative of the significant impact VR could have at scale” (Steed et al. 2018).
A recent study of users’ impressions of and reactions to immersive journalism in virtual reality found that users think VR can add considerable value to mainstream journalistic productions, potentially boosting engagement and trust (Nielsen & Sheets 2019).Through a study utilizing a use-and-gratifications framework, focus groups looked at different immersive experiences. Even though they were critical towards the technology itself, they saw a potential within journalism.
One particular concern raised in this study is echoed in other studies and in anecdotal evidence collected at various VR events, namely the social perception of VR. Users feel embarrassed when putting on a headset. It is an isolating experience and one that can make people feel self-conscious. A study by the BBC found a similar audience concern, which suggested that the limitations were the “clunky user experiences of the headsets” (Watson 2017,37).To sum up, just because a story is told on the platform, it may not be told in the way most users want to receive it. The various media technologies are to a large extent complementary platforms and not actually competitors; users have different preferences and there is no longer a “one size fits all”.
In a year-long study as an RJI Fellow at the University of Missouri, Euronews’ Thomas Seymat set out to develop tools that would facilitate audience research for 360-degree orVR content. He wanted to provide evidence-based best practices for immersive storytelling. By interviewing immersive journalists, he found that 41 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that they knew what their audience liked. Only 30 percent knew what their audience wanted. Right here we have a gap in knowledge. To determine where immersive journalism is going, how it is to be experienced, and how narratives are formed, we need more research in order to understand. Seymat is creating tools to help immersive journalists get better audience feedback. If we are to see immersive journalism thrive, we think that such tools are needed across the industry.
Authenticity and transparency remain core values of immersive journalism
Questions of authenticity in immersive journalism stories are essential. Already in the first immersive journalism experience by Nonny de la Pena, Hunger in LA (2012), authentic audio recordings and animation were used to reconstruct the human drama at a food bank line. When The New York Times produced its first immersive journalism documentary, The Displaced, in 2015, the critics, mostly from other news media organizations, commented thatVR journalism needed more collaboration between the journalist and the subject than traditional videojournalism, even repetition of the action. The New York Times’ production team emphasized that they went “through the film piece by piece to make sure that it fairly represented reality” (Sullivan 2015;Robitzski 2017). Many experts have emphasized the importance of transparency: that the journalists tell openly about the journalistic processes that preceded the output and what kind of decisions are made, especially relating to authenticity and ethics.
As the resolution of the immersive journalism experience still evolves, the question of reality versus virtual reality is getting even more serious. For example, the Finnish company Vaijo developed their first headset with a display that delivers human-eye resolution: 60 pixels per degree, the equivalent of 20/20 vision (Varjo. com 2019).
What happens when the quality of virtual reality is the same as our own vision? Actually, one of the biggest challenges for the future of immersive journalism will be how to detect forgeries. There is already a special term, “deepfakes”, coined for a new kind of digital hoax. Fillion (2018) defines deepfakes as “realistic videos created with artificial intelligence software”. So far, the known cases of deepfakes have used a variety of technologies, for example faceswaps, creating a lip-syncing facial expression onto someone else’s face (ibid.). The Wall Street Journal has been among the first to establish a special section called a Media Forensics Committee in order to tackle the deepfakes already evidenced in 2018. In 2019, it had about 20 members from different parts of the newsroom, including photo, video, editorial, R&D, audience/analytics, and standards/ethics (Lomdatze 2019). Arguably, it is only a matter of time before deepfakes in the form of immersive journalism news or documentaries will be created and circulated.