Putting the ‘wow’ in journalism: Media companies embrace 360-degree virtual reality for storytelling

Tiger Worku thought he could tell the difference between reality and virtual reality.

A freshman at Minneapolis South High School, Worku first tried virtual reality in February, through a headset providing 360-degree video immersion, at a digital media workshop at the University of St. Thomas.

“But when I put it on,” Worku said, “that was like—‘wow.’”

Worku experienced what Eric Tornoe, associate director of research computing at St. Thomas, calls the “wow factor” of virtual reality.

A high school student straps on virtual reality headgear at the ThreeSixty Journalism Youth Digital Media Summit in February at the University of St. Thomas. Media organizations are increasingly using virtual reality as a form of storytelling. (Photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

Now, journalists at organizations such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and many others are trying to harness that “wow factor” and implement it into the journalistic field.

In 2016, the Times published more than 15 virtual reality films, according to the company website. It also publishes a daily 360-degree video and offers its own virtual reality app, NYT VR. In the same year, the Washington Post debuted its first virtual reality project, titled “VRroom.”

“[Virtual reality] can show you a more complete picture of what’s going on,” Tornoe said. “Instead of just looking where the person who is shooting the footage wants you to look, you now have the ability to look all around. You can see more process.”

Jenni Pinkley, a senior producer and editor of multimedia at the Star Tribune, has been using virtual reality as a storytelling device for the past year. She calls virtual reality an “empathy machine,” saying other journalistic tools do not give users the same level of control to look around their environment.

“It has the ability to impact differently than words and one-dimensional photos do,” Pinkley said.

For example, Pinkley and the Star Tribune used virtual reality to show the tightly knit Somali community in the Cedar-Riverside area, called “Little Mogadishu,” in an article in early March. The Star Tribune added three 360-degree videos by videographer Mark Vancleave to a story written by Allie Shah, all posted on the startribune.com website.

One video allows the user to look around Samiya Clothing Store, a clothing shop in “Little Mogadishu” that is lined with decorative dresses hanging on the store walls. Another shows two barbers carefully trimming hair of two clients at Banadir Barbers, a small barbershop in Riverside Mall. Pinkley says this form of storytelling “immerses you in a situation like nothing else can.”

“We don’t necessarily have the chance to experience situations like that,” she said. “That’s about the closest you can get.”

Worku used virtual reality for the first time at ThreeSixty Journalism’s Youth Digital Media Summit, a one-day digital media workshop for high school students, and received a new experience from 360-degree video.

“It really changes the perspective of what they may have thought if they had just read a boring article online,” Worku said. “[Users] see how it is to be out there, so they also understand what the people out there are going through. It’s more likely to get people to love the news more and enjoy it.”

The higher costs of producing virtual reality stories means there are “pretty high’’ barriers to more widespread use of virtual reality in journalism, Tornoe said. He believes that it may be about five years before virtual reality storytelling is accepted as a common journalistic method.

However, due to recent spikes in demand for virtual reality gear and systems, Tornoe says, some VR systems have already seen a $1,000 price drop since their release last year. This price drop could boost accessibility for more consumers to determine for themselves the purpose and importance of VR journalism.

For journalists like Pinkley, the future of virtual reality seems close. She hopes that within the next year, virtual reality will take strides toward becoming an important method in journalism.

Pinkley eventually wants more people to see these stories for themselves by putting virtual reality systems into schools and libraries where consumers can access them.

“You are seeing it unfiltered, uncut. You are seeing it raw,” Pinkley said. “... You’re not seeing it through my eyes, you are seeing it through the eyes of a 360 camera and you are moving around the room the way you want to move around the room.”

TEEN’S TAKE: Paired with text, VR can show new angles to the story

Virtual reality certainly has its limitations. Unlike traditional broadcast journalism, the purpose of virtual reality is not necessarily to reach more households or to make visuals more accessible, but instead to give users control of their surroundings. Raw 360-degree video with a high level of user control could feed confirmation biases because a user can actively search for almost whatever he or she wants in the virtual environment.

A student uses virtual reality at the Youth Digital Media Summit in February. (Photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

Writing will likely always be needed to provide virtual reality video with the proper context. Without a solid amount of text to supplement virtual reality media, there is no longer a median—a journalist— between the viewer and a situation.

However, when writing is combined with virtual reality (for instance, the way the Star Tribune used both elements to show the Somali community in the Cedar-Riverside area), the result can be a comprehensive story that shows users multiple angles of a story. If journalists can accept the responsibility of using virtual reality as an element of storytelling and not let it tell an entire story on its own, then I believe the tool could find its place in regular journalistic storytelling.
 

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