Immersive Journalism: Now You See It; Now You’re In It

NPR interviewed documentary filmmaker and journalist Nonny De la Pena yesterday about Project Syria, which participants were able to experience at the Sundance Film Festival. Yes, experience, not view.

That’s because De La Pena’s piece is not a movie, but what she calls “immersive journalism,” created using virtual reality technology to place the viewer in the scene. In this case, one of those is a street corner in Syria’s Aleppo district right as a bomb blows up. De la Pena aims to put the viewer in the middle of the action, using real footage, audio and images taken on site. Wish you were here?

The project heralds a new way to tell journalistic stories. Journalists are already experimenting with how to use Google Glass and Oculus Rift for storytelling. But if de la Pena’s company, Emblematic Group, becomes the “CNN of VR” as Engagdet predicts, that would be a game-changer.

Think about it: Younger audiences are already accustomed to more engagement than previous audiences, ditching traditional news stories for real-time social media. What if journalists could put them, say, right on the streets of Ferguson or in an Ebola hospital in Sierra Leone? Not viewing the action, but engaging with the action.

Of course, journalists must think through the pitfalls of this kind of storytelling. As de la Pena told NPR, journalists must reflect on best practices for these new “spatial narratives.” For example, while photo manipulation is considered unethical in photojournalism, de la Pena told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel that with this new platform comes “different affordances.” That is, just as documentary film makers have ethically acceptable ways of recreating scenes for which there is no actual footage, virtual reality storytellers might also ethically recreate narratives that help audiences understand a story or situation.

This virtual journalism will have to be navigated carefully–for one, will audiences suffer post-traumatic stress from interacting with actual scenes of violence and carnage? But it’s exciting to consider the applications.