Journalism 360 ambassador Thomas Seymat is developing a tool to gather audience response to immersive content as part of his residential fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. This information will help news organizations establish best practices and improve how they tell stories in 360 videos and virtual reality.
Here Thomas shares why he is focusing on feedback and ideas from his research so far. The next step is to gather more input, including feature requests, from others in the industry. Participate in the survey to help improve immersive storytelling.
Putting the audience at the center of immersive journalism
Virtual reality and 360 video are attractive to journalists because the product promises to put the audience right in the middle of news events and foreign destinations. Yet for immersive journalism, and immersive technologies in general, to reach their full potential, we must also put the audience at the center of the VR and 360 video production process.
A key challenge immersive journalists face is to adapt the mission at the heart of journalism — informing and serving the public — to VR and spherical videos, and do it in an engaging way. How can we be sure we communicate clear, organized information to the audience using these emerging technologies?
There is currently no way of knowing, for instance, whether the nascent immersive storytelling grammar is disorienting the audience, or how to strike a balance between immersion and delivering facts, or how much information can 360/VR news consumers actually absorb through these media (is it more or less than with a traditional video report?).
This is hindering the development of immersive journalism, and of VR and 360 video in general. The available quantitative metrics are limited, inconsistent from one platform to the other, and even strongly contested. It is more challenging on the qualitative side, as comments from the audience, whether online or in-location, are few and far between. In addition, for resource-strapped journalists, testing one’s immersive story ahead of publication is a massive pain point. It is cumbersome due to the lack of dedicated tools, and it does not scale.
All this makes it hard for immersive content creators to set up efficient feedback loops (whether they are pre- or post-publication) to learn from trial and error, iterate and improve.
This is why, as part of fellowship, I have been focusing on a tool to fix this challenge. Ultimately, the goal of this tool is to provide evidence-based best practices for immersive storytelling by putting the audience at the center of the production process.
Creators could submit content to a sample of users of their choosing (either directly or remotely), collect data on their reactions and behaviors, and amend the content based on findings presented in clear, actionable reports.
Think usability testing, but tailored and streamlined for 360 video and VR content. While each report will be private, a public database of lessons and best practices for immersive storytelling may eventually be established, benefitting the entire industry.
I was encouraged by a November 2018 report written by Julie Posetti, who leads the RISJ’s Journalism Innovation Project. One of its conclusions is that media organizations should aim for innovative strategies “that start with, and focus clearly on, the needs and behaviors of ‘end users’”, ‘end users’ here being the audience. In the same report, Temple University’s Journalism Innovation Chair Aron Pilhofer laments what he calls ‘the tummy compass,’ noting that journalism is “by nature a very instinct-driven profession and fighting that is hard.” And a few pages later, Sasha Koren, a former editor for the Guardian’s Mobile Innovation Lab, recommends that “you need to look to your audience for signals of where you can do better.”
Similarly, in my RJI project, I want to make it easier to learn what audiences perceive, like and want, so we can stop relying on gut feelings and unstable data to inform our editorial decisions.
I have conducted over 15 in-depth interviews with immersive journalists, content creators, CEOs and educators (if they are reading this: hi, and thank you again!), nine men and seven women hailing from five countries on three continents. These discussions, as well as additional reading and the great team at the Information Experience Lab of the University of Missouri have helped me develop a short survey for industry members. Take the survey to support this project; your input will be key for the rest of my fellowship and how this tool takes shape.
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