Designing the Futures of Journalism: An Interview with USC’s Nonny de la Pena (Part Two)

You are especially interested in issues of bodily presence and affective immediacy that arise in response to immersive environments, qualities which make our experiences in such worlds expecially intense and memorable. Yet there’s a long tradition of science fiction writing which worries about the use of such devices for propaganda and social control, suggesting that we may find it hard to separate virtual and real experiences. What do you see as the benefits or dangers of this level of immersive experience when applied to political debates and social policies?

If only I could use this technology to brainwash my kids into cleaning up their room! Joking aside, propaganda can be an extremely effective and manipulative tool and print, radio, television have all been used throughout history for this purpose. I do hope, however, that this technology will be adopted by reputable news organizations and well-trained journalists who can help establish best practices for telling news stories. This will also enable them to have the skills to undercover when mistruths are being fed to the public.

That said, the intensity of immersive environments lends itself to creating exciting news stories. In much the way cameras in Vietnam helped shape what we saw and felt about the war, virtual worlds can potentially create powerful connections to stories. Imagine if we had built a virtual Iraq at the start of the war – audiences would have been able to experience events like marketplace bombings in much more visceral way in that they could “visit” the scene. Of course issues about the legitimacy of recreation now arise – should the audience “feel” the force of the blast?

Clearly there are practical challenges surrounding immersive journalism, given the time and money required to create such robust simulations. Does this mean that “immersive journalism” is most apt to be used for certain kinds of stories — those which have prolonged significance for the culture?

We are at a very nascent stage in immersive journalism and we may find that certain stories work better than others. My own work tends to focus on human rights and empathy and so I tend to build pieces around those issues. For example, I am currently gathering the necessary physical world audio for a piece that will focus on hunger in California. However, the future remains wide open. In explaining my work, Ernest Wilson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism described one possibility: Imagine when you get your home and garden section in the morning and you could just walk around the gardens. I like the beauty of that vision.

How do you respond to critics who suggest that such simulations must necessarily be partial, giving a simplified version of the way the real world works, given the limits of the program’s ability to deal with the complexity of human experience?

Nothing will ever replace the experience of being face to face with another human or actually being in a physical location where an event unfolds. Moreover, before the advent of virtual reality, distortion of factual scenarios in text accounts, photographs or video has a long history. It is true that the rise of digital tools has made faking it much easier and even trusted news sources have been caught using technology for questionable alterations. For example, in 2006 a Reuters’ photo editor digitally manipulated photographs from the Israeli-Lebanon conflict and released them as real. In fact, we often accept photos that are “image corrected” or “image enhanced.”

What really seems to bother critics about virtual worlds is the cartoon-like animation. But as these spaces become increasingly photorealistic, with more details drawn from data obtained in the physical world through various techniques such as 3D reconstruction, image-based rendering, and motion capture, immersive journalism can become a much more accurate representation of physical world stories. Of course, immersive journalism will then be subject to the same potential manipulation as video and photographs, but it will be certainly not any less ‘real’ than video.

By allowing for more immersive experiences, if generated according to the principles advocated here and using ethical, best journalistic practices, immersive journalism has the potential to constitute a much more faithful duplication of real events. Being in the middle of a scene can be much realistic and powerful than watching it from the audience or sitting, completely removed from the action, in your living room.

With Stroome, you are turning your attention to what remix culture might have to contribute to journalism. What can you tell us about this project?

Remix is an old culture in newsweekly journalism. For example, as a correspondent for Newsweek, I would join other Newsweek correspondents around the world in contributing material for a single story. We would all send in our individual reports to headquarters in New York where a “writer” would edit our material into the piece that would appear in the magazine. Stroome is based on the same principles. Multiple people can contribute to one story by uploading their video onto Stroome and it can be remixed right in the browser into a finished piece that can be quickly shared across the web. Stroome pushes the newsweekly idea even further, creating a social networking site that celebrates what’s possible on the web today. Multiple people can remix any story and that means any contributor can choose to have a voice on how the story should be told. Stroome also tries to be sensitive on how people feel about their content – users can designate that their content only be shared by a small group or kept private until they feel ready to push their work across the web. Finally, Stroome users can quickly search for video they can use to make their remix complete. For example, when reporting on a story, one minor element might be missing such as a sunset shot. Stroome provides a clip pool to access those missing elements.

While Stroome has recently launched, you are already seeing global impact. Can you share with us some of the early reports you’ve gotten on how journalists around the planet are using this tool?

We launched the site first at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and bloggers across the web quickly picked up on the launch. Suddenly, we had users joining from Uruguay to Tunisia, Brazil to Ireland. Just last week the Tiziano Project, which provides community members in conflict, post-conflict, and underreported regions with the equipment and training necessary to report local stories and improve their lives, announced they’ll use Stroome to create a series of video vignettes bridging war and geography. The first piece–a look at the lives of those living in the streets of Mogadishu and Los Angeles’ skid row–will go into production next week.

Neon Tommy and USC Annenberg have started to use Stroome on a regular basis. Do you have any reports yet on the impact it has had on how they are covering stories?

We are still at the initial stages of the launch, but already these USC student reporters have begun to use the site by working from different locations and uploading and editing from wherever they are – home or newsroom. For example, if you go to Madeline Scinto’s piece, you can see she reported both from home and in the Neon Tommy newsroom and had fun doing it. Annenberg TV News (ATVN) had one reporter filming at the airport during the volcano-induced chaos and another pulling AP photos while back at USC and posting them to the piece so they could achieve a quick turnaround. These were test cases, but they proved how readily news could be produced on Stroome.

What do you see as the primary implications of Stroome for citizen journalists?

Not only does Stroome makes it much for journalists of all stripes to quickly get their stories across the web, but it also provides a place where collaborations can spawn more robust pieces. For example, during a protest rally, Stroome can be the “meeting point” on the web, where anyone shooting video at the rally can post their material. Now everyone can use different clips from the rally to remix the story as they see fit and push it out across the web. In fact, the same stories can take different shapes, with diversified viewpoints sharing the same space. We also hope to make it possible to stream video straight to the site from cellphones – which means no one can ever confiscate a camera and censor footage before its reached the public. I

Ultimately, we hope Stroome can contribute to a more robust democracy by creating new avenues for information access and delivery. Also, I hope it can help break down the fears that often accompany lack of understanding about those who might be different than you are. Now people from across the planet can tell stories, side by side. Perhaps that sounds idealistic – but Stroome provides the tools to make that possible.

Nonny de la Peña is a Senior Research Fellow exploring Immersive Journalism, a novel way to utilize gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories. Her recent projects include, “Gone Gitmo,” a virtual Guantanamo Bay Prison in Second Life, which was prototyped with funding from the MacArthur Foundation and employs first person experience and spatial narrative. Another project, “IPSRESS”, is a collaboration with the Event Lab in London and Barcelona which investigates the use of head mounted display technology to evoke feelings of presence in reportage. A former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, de la Peña has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Time Magazine, Hispanic and others. She has also directed and produced a number of feature documentary films that have been screened on national television and at theaters, festivals, and special events in more than 50 cities around the globe.