Developments in technology bring improvements in the way journalists tell stories too. We have evolved from print to photography to audio to video. Now, 360-degree videos are ‘the next big thing’ for the media industry. Virtual Reality technology, through which videos can put viewers at the location of the stories, is being touted as the ultimate empathy engine because it allows viewers to walk in the shoes of the people living in places rife with conflict and other problems in the developing world. Media platforms and charitable organizations are increasingly making use of this technology to bring forth stories from the global south. However, others in the industry are of the opinion that this format of storytelling is more invasive and essentially lets organizations make profits off the backs of the suffering of communities by presenting a fetishized, ‘poverty porn’ version of stories. This is the dilemma that plagues the cutting edge technology behind 360 degrees, and this became the setting of an engaging panel discussion between industry leaders who are using this technology to tell stories.
The discussion was led by Marc Ellison, a video and photojournalist who has produced award-winning works for international media organizations and has a background in computer programming. Others on the panel were Joe Inwood, who’s a field producer for BBC World Service, Viktorija Mickute, a producer at Al Jazeera’s virtual reality’s immersive media studio Contrast VR, and Joffrey Monnier, who works as the content team leader for Doctors Without Borders.
It was apparent that all the panelists were in agreement about the fact that journalists are still figuring out how to work with 360-degree videos, and also figuring out when it doesn’t work. For Inwood, who’s a field producer, it’s just one of the tools he adds to his workflow of telling a story, while still using other mediums. Yet, it doesn’t make it any less exciting. “This is a really new medium. It’s what makes it so exciting, that we don’t have the established grammar, we don’t have all of the established rules that exist and people stick to, sometimes overly rigidly, in other mediums. It’s an evolving language and that is why it is so exciting.” However, the fact that it is so new also creates a skepticism around it and makes conversation about it that much more important.
Mickute collaborates with local journalists in the global south and works with 360 videos to produce immersive, people-centric stories, and believes that the use of this technology is currently being shaped. “The way we approach stories, who creates those stories, and the way we create those stories, it will shape what kind of stories we’re gonna see with this medium.”
Ellison brought up the point of readers feeling disengaged from stories from Africa and developing a negative stereotype about the place. A challenge that he took on with the 360 video medium was to try to re-engage readers with stories from Africa, and the Central African Republic, in particular.
While Monnier’s use of the technology to tell stories using the medium was similar, it was for a different purpose. As a part of the creative content team for Doctors Without Border, his use of the medium was also tied to a humanitarian purpose.
None of the panelists thought of 360 videos as just a gimmick but pointed out the importance of using it the right way, like with any other medium. Inwood didn’t agree with touting is as nothing journalists have ever seen before. “It’s just a different way to use sounds and videos to tell a story,” he said. “It’s very powerful but it has to be used correctly,” agreed Mickute. She also shared of the most powerful anecdotes about it being used correctly when she mentioned the impact a project shot in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh had on UN Security Council members who were shown the film. “They really said that it actually gave them additional and a deeper understanding of the issue,” she recalled. But can it drastically alter people’s viewpoints? “It’s not a magic tool but it’s one element amongst other to start the discussion,” Inwood put it succinctly.
Monnier shared an anecdote that brought forth another important point – how the immersive experience can be a traumatic experience for some viewers, which is why it’s also important to prepare people about what to expect from watching the technology.
The panel ended with a discussion about ethical issues surrounding the use of this technology, with informed consent of those being shot agreed to as THE big ethical concern, and questions about general anxieties about 360 videos taking the place of traditional media like print and video. None of the panelists thought this was likely to happen any time in the near future.
The panel discussion was followed by a virtual reality pop-up outside the venue, where the attendees interacted with the panelists and also tried out VR headsets to watch some of the footage of projects the panelists worked on. The session came to an optimistic end with people being transported from the rainy courtyard in Perugia to the streets of Yemen, or the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.