When You Just Have to Be There: Immersive Journalism and the New News Literacy
6.30.10 | When you hear the phrase “future of journalism,” does it inspire you, or leave you depressed? In either case, you may be pleased to learn how digital media is expanding journalism’s possibilities—especially for the next generation of news creators and consumers.
Henry Jenkins recently interviewed Nonny de la Peña, a senior research fellow at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who is one of the early proponents of what is termed “immersive journalism.” She explains:
Immersive journalism is a novel way to utilize gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories. These stories can be set in online virtual worlds such as Second Life or produced using a head-tracked head-mounted display system that puts the individual into a virtual body or with a body-tracking Cave. Capitalizing on the sense of presence that comes with well-made virtual reality scenarios, these platforms provide an immersive experience that can offer unprecedented access to the sights and sounds, and possibly feelings and emotions that accompany the news.
Participants move through the story as a digital representation of themselves or as one of the subjects about which the story is being told. Visual and audio primary source material from the physical world reinforce the concept that participants are experiencing a nonfiction story, with the video, sounds or photographs acting on the narrative.
de la Peña has helped build several prototypes, including “Gone Gitmo,” a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison in Second Life (which was supported by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation) that enables participants to explore the prison:
She is also helping to create an even more intensive immersive experience based on the interrogation logs of Detainee 063, Mohammed Al Qahtani, who was tortured:
Built at the Event Lab in Barcelona with Mel Slater and his team, we used head mounted display (HMD) technology to put participants into the virtual body of a detainee who is held in what is referred to as a “stress position.” When the participants look around, they see a virtual mirror and the figure in that mirror, a digital avatar who looks like a detainee, moves in unison with the participant. Participants also wear a breathing strap that programs their avatars to breathe at the same time, further enhancing the sense of virtual body ownership. Throughout, the sounds of the Al Qahtani interrogation plays as if it is coming from the next room. While research data was not collected on this particular prototype, every participant anecdotally reported that their body was hunched over in a stress position when in fact they were sitting upright.
de la Peña knows she is taking risks with her subject matter, but since these 3D virtual environments are the future of gaming and social networking, they should be the future of journalism as well:
We knew that there were many ways torture could become trivialized. However, as these environments become as ubiquitous as the 2D internet is today, I believe these spaces will become a natural environment for experiencing both fiction and non-fiction. Already children are growing up using avatars in populated virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Pixie Hollow. Our web, which uses Google or other 2D spaces as a point of entry, is quite lonely for them—nobody is there.
To help citizen journalists collaborate in these new environments, de la Peña is the co-developer, with Tom Grasty, of Stroome, an online video-editing and -sharing community we’ve discussed briefly before that enables users to mix and mash their own news. Stroome recently won $200,000 in the Knight News Challenge.
Check out the rest of the 2010 Knight News winners; many are which are using digital media to tell stories and help people forge stronger connections with their neighbors and communities.
Plus: A complement to all of these creative efforts is The News Literacy Project, which is connecting experienced journalists with students to help them sort fact from fiction in the digital age. Projects are currently underway in New York, Chicago and Bethesda, Md.
Founded by former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Alan C. Miller and supported in part by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies with funding from the Ford Foundation, the project’s primary aim is to “teach students the critical thinking skills they need to be smarter and more frequent consumers and creators of credible information across all media and platforms.”
The list of collaborating journalists is impressive, but what’s even more intriguing is what students have been inspired to do.
Most recently, students at the Reavis School in Chicago who participated in the News Literacy Project’s after-school program recently produced a radio report on peer pressure, and students from Social Justice High School in Chicago participated in a roundtable discussion that will air on public radio next month. The students discussed the state of journalism and how social media is changing information delivery, as well as how issues such as immigration and gentrification affect their lives. View other projects here.
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