Journalism in the age of virtual reality

Ever heard of Nonny De La Pena?
She is doing great stuff and pushing the boundaries of journalism. Take a look at this clip:

The work of De Le Pena is what is called immersive journalism:

Immersive journalism is the production of news in a form in which people can gain first person experiences of the events or situation described in news stories.

Media companies, journalists, storytellers, … all try to connect with their viewers to create some kind of an involvement with the story or the topic. A connection you can create by telling a compelling story.
De La Pena is goes several steps further. By creating a virtual reality she allows the user/viewer to literally walk into the scenery of where current affairs happen. (Note: Immersive journalism is not the same as new games.)
One of De Le Pena’s creations is ‘Project Syria’:

According to this is a two-part experience. The first scene replicate a moment on a busy street corner in the Aleppo district of Syria. In the middle of song, a rocket hits and dust and debris fly everywhere. The second scene dissolves to a refugee camp in which the viewer experiences being in the center of a camp as it grows exponentially in a representation that parallels the real story of how the extraordinary number of refugees from Syria fleeing their homeland have had to take refuge in camps. All elements are drawn from actual audio, video and photographs taken on scene. Utilizing the real time graphics of the Unity game engine and sense of presence evoked through high resolution virtual reality goggles and compelling audio, Project Syria takes the audience to the real events as they transpire. (source:

To create a place that is accessible

Wired is reporting how De La Pena on a conference in Malmo came to the idea of this virtual journalism:

Journalism has long attempted to convey a sense of presence in its representation of events, with journalists gathering all sorts of media and interviews to help people understand what is like to be there. This in itself is not a new idea, but de la Peña spotted a new trend in documentary games, which allowed players to put themselves into news stories to determine the outcome of events.

The first of these was the game JFK Reloaded, which allowed people to play out the assassination of JFK in the role of the shooter, and as such exploring all the possible conspiracy theories about how the shooting occurred to establish the most likely scenario. A similar game allowed players to determine whether or not John Kerry deserved his military medal, by playing him during the Vietnam war. The idea appealed to de la Peña because, she says, as journalists “we’re always trying to capture that moment in time”. The first experience she built herself was a simulation of Guantanamo Bay for Oculus Rift — a place that was off limits in real life but which could be explored with virtual reality. “I wanted to create a place that was accessible,” she says.

nonnyresized“We were very careful to draw on original source material.” This included reports from detainees about how they were taken to ‘Gitmo’ and the noises they remember hearing, military footage and freedom of information material about how detainees were put in stress positions. She combined the logs of one particular detainee with audio and then introduced Oculus Rift to see if she could put people into the body of a detainee. The results were as she’d hoped. With his hands tied behind his back and muffled sound deliberately made to sound like he had a hood over his head in his ears, one participant quickly ended up in a stress position.

If these virtual reality experiences are built with integrity, says de la Peña, it can give you a completely different kind of experience — a subjective editorial experience.

Several other projects followed, including one about hunger in Los Angeles, which utilised audio recorded at a food bank when a diabetic man collapsed. Another utilised the memories of a guard who saw a man being beaten to death at a border crossing to reconstruct the scene. De la Peña also worked on a project for the World Economic Forum to show what it was like when a bomb went off in the street in Aleppo in Syria. This was shown off at the Victoria & Albert museum in London this year and elicited the greatest number of comments the museum had ever seen in its visitor’s book. (source: Wired)

What I learn, you learn

But as progressive as this kind of journalism may be, it is niche and will face the challenge of return on investment because it is very expensive to develop. And media companies are already dealing with the high rising costs of interactive journalism and documentaries.

Let’s not forget that immersive journalism doesn’t need to be this scifi. Remember ‘Super Size Me’ where Morgan Spurlock eats McDonalds every day for a month to film the consequences of fast food. That’s also immersive journalism.
Spurlock: “After we did Super-Size Me we developed a pattern of immersive journalism through storytelling and experience. I just really responded to it and really loved it. I’m taking you on a vicarious journey so whatever I experience, you experience. What I feel, you feel. As I learn, you learn”.
You want to connect with your viewer.
Immersive journalism can be a one the compelling ways tot tell a story.
Let’s keep Spurlocks quote in mind. And later, embrace the future.

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