Immersive storytelling is the latest trend in journalism, as news organisations seek fresh ways to engage audiences through best marketing practice.
When we read of a city destroyed by an earthquake, or a school that has been bombed resulting in the loss of children’s lives, we’re not always affected as we should be. Reading or hearing about such events, or seeing photographs at a remove somehow don’t make us feel enough.
Journalists have been wondering for some time how to overcome this. They want their stories to provoke empathy and understanding, connecting audiences to the event even where it occurs at a location far away.
This is where immersive storytelling comes in. The chosen format will depend on the story. For example, 360° video captures the entire scene and allows the viewer to look up, down and around. The aim of using this Virtual Reality method of storytelling is to give the audience the sense of really being there.
A good example of this is the following video of an Essyan Refugee Camp near Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan.
Journalist Nonny de la Peña pioneered VR journalism with Project Syria.
In November 2015, The New York Times distributed over one million cardboard VR viewers to accompany their short video about displaced refugees.
The Washington Post worked with a company called Empathetic Media to recreate the events that caused Freddie Gray’s death in April 2015 and triggered riots in Baltimore. A post about the project tell us that “with 3D imagery, audio, maps and text based on court documents and witness testimony, users can better understand the complexities of the case and the differences in what the prosecutors and defence say about when and how Gray was hurt”.
Empathetic Media recently partnered with the Serbian Red Cross in a story called #STOPtrafficking2016 aimed at raising awareness of human slavery. The story was released on World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30.
Immersive storytelling focuses on understanding and empathy, which is why it works for stories trying to raise awareness about human rights and social issues. Immersing the audience into these situations provides an understanding far greater than that achieved with words.
But what about ethics? Are we seeing the actual event or are we being immersed in a scripted scenario.
In seeking to bring human suffering and drama alive for those audiences that live far away, journalists often omit certain information to achieve the desired effect. It’s easy to fall into the trap of painting a picture they want the audience to see.
Tom Kent, Standards Editor at The Associated Press, asks just how real virtual reality is. “Where’s the line between the actual event and the producer’s artistic license? Is VR journalism supposed to be the event itself, an artist’s conception of the event or something akin to a historical novel, ‘based on a true story’?” he wonders.
“Creating empathy is a goal beyond just telling a story. If the ultimate aim is to create emotion, a journalist could be tempted to omit balancing or inconvenient information that could interfere with the desired emotional effect.
“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 3-D character they’re practically touching,” he says.
Standardising the ethics of immersive journalism will not be easy. The controversies surrounding photojournalism are an obvious indicator of this. However, it’s an exciting development in journalism, and one that opens up a compelling form of storytelling in the future.
– This post was written by Emma Vince – former Digital PR Lead at Tinderpoint.