The New Frontier
Innovative technology is shaping newsrooms of the future and as a result, is fundamentally changing the way that journalists and foreign correspondents produce and tell stories. Now more than ever, we have a bouquet of storytelling options that have the potential to create presence and empathy in storytelling, bringing viewers, users, readers, and subscribers deeper into the stories than ever before.
The act of journalism is to bear witness to scenes and events, record those findings, and then ultimately describe it to us, the consumers of news and media. With the magic and growth of 360° video, anyone can now bear witness for themselves. You can be there for when a bomb sets off in Yemen, or get an inside look on a campaign trail, presenting the viewer with a different aspect of political reportage than what we are used to. You can step foot in a refugee camp in Syria, or watch a volcano erupt right in front of your eyes! The 360° video experience allows users to view and upload video recordings through the use of a special rig that holds multiple cameras in every direction.
In other words, 360° puts the viewer at the center of the story, in what appears to be complete and utter control...but are you really? The growth of this new media tool allocates for new ethical dilemmas and problems to arise, despite its’ unique capabilities.
Since 2015, major companies such as Facebook, Youtube, Google and Samsung have launched a new major communication platform to view content. In November of 2015, Mark Zuckerberg stated, “We think people will share a lot more 360° content in the future, especially as technology makes it easier to record it themselves. We’re excited you can discover them on Facebook.” On July 25, 2015, Facebook unveiled the blueprints to build the Surround 360° Camera. In 2016, the New York Times unveiled its first 360-degree video experience on its mobile website after its huge success for their NYTVR app launched in Fall 2015. This decision to push to use this content in journalism was in part due to the decline in print sales. The Times has always been ahead in visual digital storytelling, and in this day and age where news is shown across multiple platforms everyday, it will be interesting to see the production value, content quality and ethical discussion this new medium will have on its users and creators.
One of the most compelling aspects of 360° content is its power to transport viewers to a place they could not or would not go. 360° puts the viewer at the center of the story. If it’s done well, it creates a feeling of presence . You truly feel like you’re there. There is no comparison to 360. There’s a possibility of increasing that empathy, because of the immersion you’re experiencing physically and emotionally with this new journalistic, visual storytelling tool.
It is imperative to note that a good story is one that takes advantage of the medium’s strength. Always ask yourself these questions before deciding if you want to shoot something in 360°:
- Why is this a 360° Video?
- Could it be better told in conventional video format?
- What does this medium offer that no other story can be complete with?
“Journalists are thinking about the unintended consequences of providing 360-degree coverage. What happens when a whole scene is depicted and there is no way to exclude potentially graphic aspects? How does one protect privacy or get consent in a spectrum that makes it difficult to isolate coverage? Can the immersion, at times, be too realistic or manipulative and create frightening, uncomfortable or misleading experiences? What kinds of warnings need to be given to potentially sensitive users? What happens when a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder experiences a 360-degree video of a car bomb exploding in Aleppo?”
“360° is really good at somethings, and really bad at other things, and being able to isolate those key distinctions within the stories you’re considering to shoot 360° video in is essential,” stated Lisa Tobin, New York Times Daily 360 executive producer for audio. Telling stories through a 360-degree spherical video poses many technical problems; requiring multiple techniques to engage the viewer, as well as ethical concerns that go along with that. Below are examples that express that very idea:
In order to become a professional and trustworthy journalist, one must study and understand the ethical implications of the medium they’re working in. The public’s trust is fragile, and in cases where the public must rely on factual information in order to make informed decisions, it is imperative that the information we as journalists feed to the public is verifiable. While it may be impossible to show “the truth” in a single photograph or story, it’s assumed that a “reasonable person” would be able to determine the truthfulness of an issue by relying upon the visuals. This is the power of photography. It’s power is this discerning depiction of reality that can change a cultural perception and understanding of an event or person.
Be that as it may, does our perception, understanding and standards of ethics change in spite of using a different lens such as 360° video? It shouldn’t, but in some instances it has. According to Robert Kaiser, former managing editor of The Washington Post, he wrote a complaint to Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the NYT stating, “A subject may be asked to repeat an action, or wait until the filmmaker is out of sight to complete a task,” an action that is completely unethical and should be avoided at all times.
These are the last words Peter Egan says in this immersive 360° inside look of a pork slaughterhouse. Through the perspective of the animals, iAnimal is a campaign pioneered by the international animal protection organization Animal Equality, which aims to shed light on the abuse of animals that are bred in farm factories and slaughterhouses for human consumption. “iAnimal brings people to experience, for the first time, what life is like in a modern factory farm,” said Sharon Nunez, Executive Director of Animal Equality. “Viewers will inhabit the cruel world humans have created for animals, feeling their suffering. This extremely empathetic experience will change, and save, lives.” The intense, explicit 7-minute long short film brings the viewer into several scenes where unimaginable, horrific bloodshed of pigs is unveiling right in front of your eyes, literally. What’s worse? The narrator manifests the viewer into believing they’re the pig, directing your attention to the most gruesome scenes through the use of pronouns and a second person point of view. “I have never seen anything as shocking as this in my life,” said Peter Egan. “It’s devastating, and completely inhumane. Virtual reality enabled me to experience, close up, for just a few minutes, the horror of the short lives of factory farmed animals, to see what they see, to get a real sense of how they live. It has shocked me deeply, and it has strengthened my resolve to help them.” It is thanks to the power of 360° video experience that this awareness and exposure is possible.
Could 360° video be the future of animal activism? It’s possible. But, did the journalists adhere to his/her professional standards? Absolutely not. When professional ethical standards and personal ethics are in conflict on the job, professional ethics should take precedence. Using celebrities to endorse their work, this footage was so disturbing that an entire debate regarding, “VR ethics and censorship of content,” occurred during the Immersive Journalism panel hosted by the Sundance Institute. Due to Animal Equality’s “investigative reportage” I would be curious if they go inside these factories undercover, and ultimately are lying about their credentials. Under the utilitarian perspective, “a journalist is concerned by the consequences of an ethical judgement, and in hopes of achieving the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people.” However, positive consequences for society, to achieve ‘moral good’ for the public, may justify these devious means used in gathering information such as lying about your credentials. Journalists have a special role in society. They are the eyes and ears of the public and we are becoming increasingly dependent upon them everyday for information. If a journalist was to get caught lying about their credentials and who they really are, this would be unethical in their approach and their biased portrayal in the story.
Another ethical issue is the removal of the tripod feet and/mount for the 360° camera when stitching this video together. “Using software to arrange the video from individual cameras in a manner that creates the 360-degree view. Our brain “stitches” together what both of our eyes see to make one large picture. We have to do the same with the video from different cameras.” According to Robin Mudge, a former BBC documentary producer and veteran panoramic photographer,Mudge suggests looking at early VR photographic techniques such as a fisheye lens. “This produced a circular image capturing a 180-degree hemispherical angle of view… Until recently, it has been more common to see images shot with the fisheye lens facing up. This hemispherical image gives a horizontal 360-degree panoramic view.” Mudge continues to explain while exploring documentary material with a 180-degree fisheye that the top and bottom angle that we normally would see in a 360° video is not seen, which in turn, “helps keep the feet of the camera operator out of the shot!”
A resolution to this unethical situation is by telling the full story, not by removing the intimacy we gain by watching this with a headset / in 360° video. Many documentaries have been made about the horrors of food production corporations, and many of those are shot with a conventional video camera. The 360° camera allows for viewers to scan across the screen and get a glimpse of everything surrounding the camera. It is the producer and editor to blame for the intentions behind this story.
The NYT Daily 360° aims at offering a “first hand perspective, transcend boundaries, let them witness climate change, come face to face with adversity, demystify the world, experience elsewhere and see where you stand.” In Bayeté Ross Smith’s 360° video, Firsthand Account: The Assassination of Malcolm X, the viewer is transported to the streets of New York City where civil rights leader Malcolm X rallied and was later assassinated. Through the use of rotoscoped animations, and historical imagery overlaid on top of 360° moving video, this short feature immerses the viewer into a time and place that many would have never been able to experience. This work is powerful and effective because it offers a different kind of feeling than if you read about Malcolm X or saw a standard historical documentary on him and his assassination.
Some of the ethical dilemmas in this piece is the ‘intended viewing experience,’ which forces the video to turn on its own, and not allowing the user to experience it for themselves. One could argue that this is similar to conventional video formats, where editors sequence short clips together to form a story. Another ethical dilemma is who is the voice of this piece and how much authorship is there between the journalist and the interactive user? We as viewers lose understanding of the important points that a journalist might be wanting to express because we are in charge of the direction. We only listen to what we want to hear and only look at what we want to see.
It is difficult to illustrate historical content and analysis in 360. Stories that have multiple layers, characters and plot lines are complex in nature and even more so when trying to present them in a 360 video format. More examples of stories that diminish the experience are ones that do not utilize the all of 360’s unique capabilities. Stories about a person who suffers from mental illness for example would be a poor use of 360 because the viewer wouldn’t be able to get a sense of the person, however if this story was on a mental institution, place would act as a character and inform the viewer on what goes on within this mental institution.
Love Across the USA is a community based, nation wide public art project started by internationally renowned Polish artist, Olek. Crochet enthusiasts near and far came out to Rochester, N.Y. to here Olek’s dynamic story and volunteer their skills in creating a large-scale crochet mural in honoring historical women throughout U.S. history, whose work and achievements made it possible for a woman to run for president.
An ethical dilemma in this edit is being mindful of which voice belongs to who. Text is often incorporated in 360 videos to make it easier for the viewer to understand who is speaking, what the story is about and any other information that is significant to the stories that could otherwise not be represented by the visuals. A narrative technique Abbot describes as free indirect style is a method that allows a character to take on the narrative voice, alternating between the narrator informing the reader what the character’s actions are and the characters inner voice. The tricky part for the reader is being mindful of whose voice belongs to whom. “This fluid adaptation of the narrator’s voice in a kind of ventriloquism of different voices, all done completely without the usual signposts of punctuation and attribution” (Abbot, 70). How much of our voice as journalists should be included in the stories we produce and the overall narrative tone?
Another ethical concern with this piece is having to pause situations and acts in order to place the camera, and then run off and hide in order to not be in the scene. At first, the thought of abandoning our camera caused a lot of anxiety. I’m not used to leaving camera rolling in the middle of a public place. What if someone steals it? What if it stops recording? What if the subject moves? What if we’re not getting the shot we need? Slowly walk away, far enough away so that you’re in the background and can find something to hide behind. If there’s no background or nothing to hide behind, keep walking until you find something to hide behind.
Complicated and hard to accomplish, positional audio is soon to become the next holy grail. Exploring how sound is recorded and mapped to a 360° video will be a vital resource to the vast possibilities this new found technology will have on its’ content creators, editors and users. “360° sound or positional audio mimics the way we perceive audio in the world. Positional audio maps the sound to the video depending on the position of your head, so if someone is speaking on your left, they’ll sound like they’re on your left. And when you move your head to the left, changing your position so that the video subject is in front of you, they’ll sound like they’re in front of you,” says Bob Sacha, adjunct faculty member at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Audio and 360 video helps transport the listener, using two out of five senses, sight and sound. There is this one to one experience we have with the narrator or character in a 360 video, this example can again be seen in the Animal Equality 360 activism story, iAnimal.
According to Robin Mudge, a former BBC documentary producer and veteran panoramic photographer, audio is the key in directing viewers through a story when using 360°video. “Audio content now plays an increasingly important role as a narrative guide - content and direction of the sound and audio narration, alerting the viewer where to look and what to focus on within the fixed position spherical scene.”
Rochester Institute of Technology is a diverse school with the perfect combination of creative and technical minds. Across various departments, these minds have been researching and discovering virtual reality and 360-degree video technologies. Nick Franco, Kirsten Martin, and Madison Zic from the CIAS Photographic Sciences program are working with Professor Nitin Sampat, researching, developing, testing and building ways to create and edit 360 content using the Facebook Surround 360 Camera for their senior capstone project. The Facebook Surround 360 Camera uses a system of 17 individual lenses and smaller cameras.They presented these findings at the 2017 Imagine RIT, held inside the Gordon Field House. For Martin and Franco, the VR camera system is an opportunity to give festival attendees a neat look into one of photography’s most intriguing technologies.“We’re trying to make one unified effort out of all the ideas and excitement that everyone involved has brought to this project,” said Kirsten Martin, a fourth-year photographic sciences major from Enola, Pa. “We’ve been doing our best working around the hiccups that we don’t always have control over. It’s been a big exercise in creative problem-solving really.”
“VR is a new medium and for people to understand the impact it can have it has to be shown effectively,” Franco added. “The first few experiences with VR often determine someone’s feelings about the medium, so we want to give them the best experience possible.”
This is an exciting time to be a journalist, especially with new, innovative, breakthrough technology such as 360 video. Creating a strong sense of empathy and presence is desperately what we need to keep our viewers fully engaged and interested in a time where media is constantly being thrown at us on a daily basis. To a greater extent, smartphones and their technological advancements are becoming a vital necessity, more so than we all anticipated. It’s exciting but also worrisome. Will our phones soon have 360 capabilities and will there be new rules set in place in regards to how and where we shoot? “A lot of the discussions were based around the technical issues of filming in 360; where do you place the camera? how do you use sounds to prompt the viewer to turn around; lighting issues; flow of action; proximity and the ethical dilemmas of not knowing what’s behind you when filming or the fact that many people are unaware of what a 360 camera looks like. There were also a lot of discussions around distribution outlets – how do you get people to watch your films once they have been made?”
Regardless of what tool or medium you’re using a story is a story and should always be told with honesty and integrity. A professional photojournalist not only has to know and practice the techniques and ethics of photojournalism, but has to be aware of the responsibilities of the profession. This means that photojournalists should be technically competent and able to produce professional quality work. Including an understanding of standards of practice that will strengthen the profession, its credibility and its continued value in our society. These responsibilities can also include ongoing professional development. Awareness is essential because this profession must be respected and supported if the public wishes to know what is going on around the world. Although sometimes demanding, photojournalist put their professional standards and values above his/her job’s standards and values.
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Redohl, S., & TwitterFacebookAbout Sarah RedohlSarah Redohl is an award-winning new media journalist focusing on mobile and 360 experiences. Her work has been featured on the Travel Channel and National Public Radio, among others. She has also been recognized as one of Folio: Magazine’s 15 Under 30 young professionals driving media’s next-gen innovation.See all posts by Sarah. (2016, November 04). New York Times launches Daily 360 initiative using Samsung Gear 360 VR cameras. Retrieved May 12, 2017, from http://www.newsshooter.com/2016/11/04/new-york-times-launches-daily-360-initiative-using-samsung-gear-360-vr-cameras/
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