A New Breakthrough For Immersive Journalism?

How can 360 degree videos and VR change the ways stories are told? Will immersive journalism get its final breakthrough during the corona crisis? – It is wise and timely to watch these technologies now, says ViSmedia researcher Turo Uskali from Finland. Uskali led the work with the new Routledge-book Immersive Journalism as Storytelling, which is now released as an e-book.

A New Breakthrough
Hedvig Idås

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The book sets off cutting-edge new research and examines future prospects on 360-degree video, VR, and AR in journalism. 21 scholars have contributed to the edited collection.The book was co-edited by Turo Uskali (Finland), Astrid Gynnild (Norway), Sarah Jones (United Kingdom) and  Esa Sirkkunen (Finland),  with contributions from ViSmedia researchers Lars Nyre, Joakim Vindenes, Siri Flatlandsmo, and Deborah G. Johnson.  

In the following, Associate Professor Turo Uskali from University of Jyväskylä provides his perspectives on the new book.

 HI: What is immersive journalism, and how does it differ from other journalistic approaches?

TU: Immersive journalism is journalism that uses immersive technologies, including 360-degree videos, virtual reality, augmented reality, or mixed reality. It differs from other journalistic forms, especially in terms of presence. One can argue that immersive journalism is able to “teleport” the user inside the story to experience the story first hand. “Being there” is not possible with 2D stories, as they always present some distance between the story and the audience.

HI: What inspired you to write this book?

TU: In 2016, when we found this new area for research, there was a lack of research literature, so we decided systematically to build our own research-based knowledge about immersive journalism. We published first some research papers, organized some panels during scientific conferences, and then ended up drafting a book proposal, as we wanted to provide a comprehensive overview of our findings so far.

 HI: Who is your book’s audience?

 TU: We hope to attract multiple audiences, from journalism, media and communication students, teachers, and scholars to all professionals who want to understand the implications of immersive technologies for journalism. 

HI: What makes it unique?

 TU: The book consists of 16 chapters, which all together form a timely and critical overview of immersive journalism. Over 20 scholars from five countries contributed to the book, and especially, the international collaboration makes this book special. It has four main focus areas: ethics, production, design, and education. All these aforementioned areas are important to understand the limits and possibilities of immersive journalism,  

HI: What did you learn when writing the book?

 TU: Probably the main learning outcome was understanding how important it is to build international scholarly networks that can collaborate effectively. Emergent technologies are demanding constantly evolving targets for individual academic researchers, but collectively, we are able to gather large and timely data sets and form critical overviews.  

HI: What surprised you the most?

 TU: How much work that was needed. In the end, I lost count of on how many times each chapter was drafted before its final version. It was great to see how patiently but effectively all contributors did they work.

HI: Are you a tech optimist? Why or why not?

 TU: Well, I think I am tech-neutral or tech-curious, if these words exist. I want to constantly test new technologies and applications for journalistic purposes with my critical and clever students. If they give even cautious green lights to new gadgets or applications, that often indicates to me a need for further investigation. Very often, there do not exist any studies of new technologies when we pilot them in our courses. Being at the forefront gives extra motivation for the work.

 HI: What do you think are the biggest ethical and technical challenges in immersive journalism?

 TU: As immersive journalism experiences could be more powerful than any other journalistic forms, ethical thinking and considerations are really important. Of course, traditional journalism ethics is still valid, but there is also a need for some fine tuning, particularly in terms of children. It is not advised to give head-mounted displays to small children. In addition, there should be warnings for those who have health problems, as well as safety guidelines for all. The main technological challenge will be enabling high-quality experiences. If the video is blurred or out of focus, the user will not want to spend much time with the story.  

HI: What are your best tips to educators who wish to incorporate immersive journalism into a classroom?

 TU: Start with some high-quality examples and use high-quality head-mounted displays. Then, move to create the first 360-degree video examples with cameras and reserve enough time to learn how to edit the videos. As 360-degree videos are easy to share to many digital platforms, this will be the next obvious step.

 HI: What do you think is the future of Immersive journalism?

 TU: As we conclude the book, there are several different trajectories for immersive journalism. It seems the infrastructure or markets for the mass adoption of immersive journalism are not ready yet, but it is wise to watch these technologies, as the next wave of innovations in digital communications could be based on immersive technologies. Finally, in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, all effective and safe distance learning opportunities are much appreciated.