New Media Is Exciting. But Are Journalists Jumping On Board Too Fast?

Senior Ashlyn Webb tries a VR experience at the Online News Association conference in New Orleans on Sept. 14, 2019.

360 Video, VR, AR and other immersive visual experiences are some of the latest technologies to catch the attention of energetic journalists around the world. 

At the Online News Association conference in New Orleans, I wandered through a gallery of news outlets using all of these tools to try to tell stories more effectively. I thought about the VR game shops that have popped up all over the country, and the novelty that still surrounds the whole experience.

In a lot of ways, walking around that room reminded me of the craze that followed the popularization of wet-plate photography during the mid 19th century. People were taking photos, and journalists were absolutely desperate to get them into their publications.

Like VR rooms, people flocked to Mathew Brady’s National Photographic Gallery in New York City, and journalists were green with envy when he displayed photos of the dead from the day after the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. They were so envious that they started making wood engravings based on photographs, like this one by John MacDonald of freed slaves on the canal bank at Richmond.

The fascination people have with VR and AR is more light-hearted, but there may be some parallel worth considering: a medium that would become one of the most effective methods for journalism started out as a novelty. But will VR become mainstream, or will it remain a novelty?

These emerging technologies may not necessarily be the next big thing. Video quality and usability of these technologies still need to advance before they will be widely accepted, according to a study on the quality of experience of 360 video in VR from 2017. 

Another similar article published in Taylor & Francis Online in January found that a news story told in an immersive 360 video experience gives the viewer a greater sense of presence than 2D video on a laptop. The authors also found that viewers experience more enjoyment when viewing a story in VR, although it’s only moderately more.

One problem they found with 360 video is that there is a decrease in quality when it’s displayed on a 2D laptop or phone screen.

“The single viewpoint video was less enjoyable due to the stretched images, and the drag-and-drop feature of the interactive video was found to be more distracting than supporting to the story,” the authors wrote.

The most interesting claim from the article to me, though, was that immersive 360 video has “no impact” on engagement with distant suffering. They elaborated on that idea, writing, “In other words, virtual reality cannot bridge the gap between the viewer and the distant suffering other in disaster news.”

They did scale back that idea a bit, saying the types of story components that move the viewer may differ depending on the platform as well as the content, and availability of possible action from the story.

From this article I’ve gathered that the best platform is– like we’ve been taught– largely determined by the story. 

During the showcase at ONA, we had the opportunity to try some of the VR and 360 video stories. The story that stood out to me was 12 seconds of gunfire by the Washington Post. And what I liked most about it is that it wasn’t plopping me into a war-torn town or the scene of a natural disaster.

12 seconds of gunfire made me feel like a kid as I was lead through the story with intuitive cues and child-like illustrations. The art, the directionality of the text and the sound all allowed me to empathize with Ava Rose Olsen more than if I had read her story on another platform. And the best part about this story is how well it translates to a laptop or phone screen. They created a static 2D version that is equally as engaging, and moving through the VR version on a laptop is still (relatively) easy to follow.

The New York Times also has great examples of engaging 360 video, like Get Down on the Ice and Start Sweeping, which is just a story explaining how curling works. Even just clicking around on the screen, the content made me suddenly care a lot more about the sport.

But their story Remembering Emmett Till was a 360 video that I found to be more of a hassle to watch in 360 on a computer screen. Clicking around the screen constantly pulled me out of the story more than into it, and the visuals weren’t compelling enough to need to see them in 360. Though maybe seeing it with a VR headset would change my opinion.

I’d also like to mention some AR work by Nancy Baker Cahill, an artist who creates sculptural installations using AR, and puts them on her free platform called the 4th Wall App. She created the platform to be a place where artists can share their own AR work using coordinates. Cahill alters spaces by adding elements like floating shapes, or even creating a room in the middle of a sidewalk in NYC, to guide the viewer through an immersive, visual experience. 

What made the Washington Post’s story engaging– for me, at least– is that they didn’t thrust me into the middle of a terrible situation. Cahill does the same thing, by allowing the subject to be part of the viewer’s current world. 

AR, VR and 360 video are interesting emerging media, and it’s exciting to see journalists experiment with these platforms. But my main thought after exploring these platforms further is that perhaps journalists are so eager to present realistic, immersive content that they’re neglecting to think about if it should be presented in such a way. In the 19th century, photography was a novel tool that could viscerally portray scenes like never before. That’s what drew people to M. Brady’s exhibit of dead bodies from the Battle of Antietam, however ethically ambiguous the display was. I wonder if, like Brady’s exhibit, the novelty of these platforms is driving content decisions more than the story itself.

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