Immersive journalism: What virtual reality means for the future of storytelling and empathy-casting

As The New York Times brings new attention to VR, immersive journalism could drive not only changes in the media industry, but mainstream adoption of the technology.

By the end of the day on April 25, 2015, the city of Bhaktapur, Nepal, like many other parts of the country, was in ruins thanks to a 7.8 earthquake.

There's an 11-year-old boy in the Ukraine named Oleg who used think it would be cool if his school blew up, but when fighting with Russia broke out in his separatist village in the spring of 2014 and destroyed everything, he wasn't so keen on the idea any more.

A mortar shell exploded on a populated street in Aleppo, Syria.

Another day, another disaster.

For decades, journalists have been trying to figure out how to better connect audiences to serious events that happen far, far away, and build empathy and understanding.

Most recently, media organizations are turning to virtual reality as the possible next step toward that goal.

The big news as of late has been The New York Times decision to send 1.2 million Google Cardboard units to subscribers via snail mail. Readers could download the NYTVR app, pop their smartphone into Cardboard, and watch several videos, including an 11-minute documentary on Oleg and two other children ousted from their homes by war called The Displaced.

The New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein, who's been leading the Times into VR, told TechRepublic it's been the most successful app launch in the history of the organization.

Other media organizations like Discovery and Outside magazine are launching virtual reality initiatives of their own. The Los Angeles Times created a VR tour of Mars' Gale Crater in October. There will be others to follow.

The short history of news and virtual reality

Though The New York Times first starting thinking about VR a year ago, it isn't the first on the scene, here. Journalist Nonny de la Peña's been extolling the virtues of VR storytelling since at least 2012 when she started work on a piece called Hunger in Los Angeles, which put viewers at an LA food bank where a starving man with diabetes collapsed in line.

She's gone from using her own $700 to fund the project to working with organizations like the World Economic Forum and Al-Jazeera America to produce pieces on domestic violence, the Trayvon Martin Case, Syria, the treatment of illegal migrants, and more.

SEE: Nonny de la Peña: Journalist. Virtual reality pioneer. Occasional painter.

Constructing all the pieces starts with using real audio from the event, and scenes are built to match reality.

Nonny de la Peña works on her Hunger in Los Angeles VR project.
Image: Emblematic Group

Already, her work has influenced others in the field, like Syracuse University journalism professor Dan Pacheco. Pacheco was a 2014 summer consultant for Gannett, the parent company of The Des Moines Register. He helped the newspaper create a virtual reality experience for the Oculus Rift called Harvest of Change, which launched in October 2014 and featured a 100-year-old family farm in Iowa.

"Most of us go to the grocery store, get our food, come home, we eat it, then we go back and get more, and there's this whole other process behind that," he said. "Ultimately, it was about the people who were growing your food... it would be a good way for people to understand these things about the food supply in a way that was accessible to everybody, and also engaging."

Harvest of Change won an Edward R. Murrow award, and recently snagged a National Press Foundation award, as well.

Understanding and empathy

Understanding and empathy are two words that crop up a lot in discussions of VR and storytelling.

RYOT is a news organization built on the idea that every story they run should inspire some action, whether it's donating money or signing a petition, said RYOT COO Molly Swenson.

The organization launched three years ago. Their first virtual reality piece came about when a director friend of the team built a replica of a solitary confinement cell in his backyard. They put a virtual reality camera in the middle of it and used a voice over of a man who had been wrongly convicted of a crime and placed in solitary confinement for a year.

"He's narrating this experience, you're in a headset, you're looking around and he goes, 'In 15 seconds, you're going to be able to take off this headset and return to a normal life, but that's not the case for 80,000 Americans who are in solitary confinement today,'" Swenson said. "Everyone has this moment of being like 'Oh, my God, what if I couldn't take off this headset and this is my reality?'"

A still from RYOT's The Nepal Quake Project.
Image: RYOT

She said everyone who tried the experience signed a petition from the ACLU to stop the practice.

"This is basically a 100% conversion rate on a piece of content that we have," she said.

Or, she talked about how watching a piece on the destruction in Aleppo can help people understand the current refugee crisis.

"You don't leave your home unless you're homeless like that, and all of the 3 million people or so who used to be in this city have deserted and have to be somewhere, and now the pictures of the camps make sense," Swenson said.

They've done other many pieces, including one from Nepal. The day after the earthquake, and after a big hustle to find a VR camera on short-notice, co-founder David Darg snagged one with about five minutes to spare before heading through airport security, and flying to Nepal.

He brought back their first 360, immersive disaster coverage.

The ethics of VR and journalism

To be sure, there are concerns about how ethics play into VR journalism.

As De la Peña told TechRepublic, there's a responsibility with taking a person's body along for the ride, so to speak.

Associated Press standards editor and Columbia University journalism professor Tom Kent wrote a Medium post about the topic. In it he outlined issues like image integrity, especially when dealing with re-creating events, how to represent competing views on an event, choices as to what details creators decide to include or not, privacy, or even the merit or implications of showing scenes that are gruesome or graphic.

Would future tragedy coverage include taking a VR camera to the scene of a massacre?

Kent suggested the use of tactics like pre-roll disclosures and producers creating and posting their codes of ethics.

"In traditional media, too, the desire to paint a cause or a person in sympathetic tones can conflict with impartial, hard-headed reporting. But the potential for empathy is even greater in the VR world, since viewers can bond far more easily with a 3D character they're practically touching," he wrote.

A still from The New York Times' VR documentary, The Displaced.
Image: The New York Times

How the media could drive adoption

There's been a lot of talk about how "average" folks will first encounter VR and how they'll react to it. Few will end up doing a demo at a tech conference, perhaps some might know a gamer who decides to spring for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or Playstation VR. In truth, for many people, their first experience with VR will be mobile-driven.

The funny thing is that purists argue that Google Cardboard is not really virtual reality, that the experience is too low end and that 360 video is separate from VR—and it is. But, that's not a distinction easily made for people who are just now learning what immersion is in the first place.

Efforts like The New York Times' send of 1.2 million units to its subscribers could end up being that first touchpoint for people outside of tech.

One of the 1.2 million Google Cardboard viewers from the New York Times.
Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

And the partnership between Cardboard and The New York Times, Pacheco thinks, made a lot of sense, partly just because of the Times' function as a distribution platform.

"They have this whole infrastructure for delivering stuff to people everyday," he said. And that plays into a point Silverstein made, being that the Times has essentially created an audience for its VR work by taking advantage of that distribution.

"We feel like we have an audience now for VR that's difficult to find anywhere else at the moment, that there's a platform," Silverstein said.

But beyond that, the partnership also worked in that prior to the idea of mailing out Cardboard units, the Times didn't really have a way to deliver virtual reality content.

"When you're bringing [new] technology to a general audience and to a mass audience, you have these hurdles with people being unfamiliar with the new technology, and with the steps that are required to experience it. A lot of experiences with new technologies founder on those shoals," Silverstein said.

Paying for it

Silverstein also talked about making the business case for using VR. Afterall, an undertaking like this comes together with input from more than just an editorial department. He said it wasn't hard to make a case to advertisers.

Inside the app, viewers will find sponsored content from MINI USA and GE, and on the outside of the viewer, the GE logo sits right next to The New York Times'. He acknowledged that VR is still young, and the business of VR will evolve as time goes on, particularly as companies like Facebook get involved, since it acquired Oculus in 2014. For now, there is a certain appeal.

"A lot of people want to tell their stories with VR," he said.

The Google Jump array has 16 cameras.
Image: James Martin/CNET

And that can be incentive to convince advertisers to essentially help foot the bill for something like 1 million Cardboard viewers which, when purchased in bulk, can come in somewhere around a half dollar or a couple dollars per unit.

For media organizations, getting into VR will be an investment, as is the case with any new technology. Camera arrays, depending on quality and number of cameras, can dip into the thousands of dollars range. Syracuse bought a camera array for $3,000 for its journalism students, Pacheco said Google Jump's array runs for $15,000. The New York Times partnered with storytelling company Vrse to create their videos.

"Any media company should look at this as an experiment, something that may or may not work out and is probably going to fail, but even if you have to replace all your equipment every year, this is going to be a huge area of growth," Pacheco said.

In April, Digi-Capital put out a report that projected that VR will be a $30 billion market by 2020.

And what's more, as Pacheco and De la Peña pointed out, there's a hope that VR could be a way to attract a younger audience, which is an old problem for traditional media.

Pacheco said that in the runup to Harvest of Change, Gannett's vice president of product had this thought: Maybe we can make news for the Minecraft generation.

A new tool in the tool box

One of the challenges of teaching journalism is teaching students how to embrace new tech and how to adapt to the changes it brings with it, whether it's video or social media.

Pacheco is now the Horvitz Chair in Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. In essence, his job is to "teach students how to ride [the] wave of disruption rather than be disrupted." Spring 2016 marks his third semester teaching virtual reality storytelling. He covers not just 360 video, but the Unity Game Engine, and 3D modeling tools.

Initially, he wasn't sure what kind of interest there would be in the class, but that first spring semester class filled up in less that 24 hours.

Students included majors in broadcast journalism, public relations, design, advertising, and even architecture. The expectation was that by the end of the class, they'd be able to create something as immersive as Harvest of Change.

The New York Times producer Jenna Pirog talks to Dan Pacheco's virtual reality class.
Image: Dan Pacheco

And they did. To name just two, student David Jones created an experience for Oculus showing what it's like to be deployed as a soldier in a hostile desert environment. Students Eric Jackson and Aron Nah produced a 360 video that puts the viewer with the Syracuse marching band during a football game as the team runs out onto the field of the Carrier Dome.

Pacheco frames the emergence of virtual reality as a new chapter in the history of media. Chapter one was everything from the printing press to broadcast television— the big idea was getting information out to millions of people. Chapter two was digitally packaging the information, putting text, video, audio, and photos all together in one place, whether it was a CD-ROM, the internet, or a mobile device. Chapter three will be about experience and immersion. It'll be about removing the distance between the audience and the information. And what's more, it will one day be more than just an "add-on" feature.

Silverstein said VR will be a core part of what the Times and other media organizations do in the future, along with text, audio, video, and photos, and he said they've got more VR pieces planned for the coming months.

"VR will take its place among those other formats," he said.

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Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.