KnightBlog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Journalism
Dec 17, 2015

How Knight is helping FRONTLINE and Emblematic Group chart the future of virtual reality in journalism

Posted by Raney Aronson-Rath

Above: A still image from “Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey,” FRONTLINE’s virtual reality documentary with Secret Location and Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Raney Aronson-Rath runs FRONTLINE – PBS’ flagship investigative journalism series, produced at WGBH in Boston. Today Knight Foundation is announcing support for a FRONTLINE partnership with Emblematic Group, a virtual reality startup, to create best practices for immersive experiences in journalism.

There’s a guiding principle I’ve carried with me throughout my career in journalism: the idea of reporting against my own assumptions.

I am constantly reminding myself – and all of us at FRONTLINE – to ask tough questions, from every angle.

Lately, I’ve found myself applying this not just to our journalism, but to the form of our journalism as well.

Long-form, linear documentary journalism will always be at the center of FRONTLINE and in our DNA, but we are also challenging ourselves to innovate.

That has led us to new places, from interactive journalism such as our recent project titled “Inheritance” to the burgeoning world of virtual reality (VR). We recently released the virtual reality documentary “Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey” with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Secret Location, and are finishing an upcoming documentary in collaboration with the Brown Institute for Media Innovation filmed in VR from the frontlines of the famine in South Sudan.

With virtual reality becoming increasingly accessible on a wide array of storytelling platforms, the question now is how do we make certain FRONTLINE’s VR efforts embody our brand of tough but fair reporting and filmmaking?

As of now, there aren’t recognized protocols when it comes to virtual reality and journalism.

That’s where Knight Foundation’s support of a new partnership between FRONTLINE and the pioneering virtual reality company Emblematic Group comes in. With Knight’s support, over the next 18 months we’ll work with Emblematic Group to harness our reporting into at least three virtual reality projects. As we do so, we will identify some key editorial, ethical and technical principles, and share them with the wider field so that both audiences and others helping develop these techniques can benefit from the collaboration.

Our well-established editorial standards will guide us, but virtual reality presents its own challenges, opportunities and questions. As we go forward in developing best practices, we will be consulting with FRONTLINE’s network of producers, journalist colleagues in other news organizations and journalism schools. We’ll also draw on what I learned as a 2014-2015 Fellow at the MIT Open Doc Lab, where I focused on innovating the documentary form through virtual reality.

And we look forward to working with Emblematic Group and its CEO Nonny de la Peña, who first launched the field of immersive virtual reality storytelling eight years ago. In Nonny’s words, “Knight’s generous support will allow us not only to produce some great work together, but also to share our learnings with other journalists.”

I know the lessons we learn will be put to good use at FRONTLINE and beyond because, as we are seeing, the merging of virtual reality and journalism is well underway.

With 25 million virtual reality headsets expected to be sold worldwide by 2018, and journalists increasingly able to reach larger and larger audiences with this technology, this Knight-supported partnership is an important opportunity to help foster future opportunities for meaningful immersive journalism – and set journalistic standards that can guide us all.

We can’t wait to get started.

Raney Aronson-Rath has been internationally recognized for her work to expand FRONTLINE’s reporting and reimagine the documentary form across multiple platforms. Follow her on Twitter at @raneyaronson.

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