Finding the right form

“Will virtual reality deliver a journalism experience and immerse our audience in the story in a way we couldn’t before? Or will it feel too intrusive?”

Over the past few years, I’ve watched visual storytelling explode across journalism. From The New York Times to The Atlantic to BuzzFeed, I’ve seen traditionally text-based colleagues and outlets embrace new visual forms, whether they’re building beautiful interactive data visualizations or launching ambitious new video units.

raney-aronsonI’m pleased to see this visual exploration not just because I’m a documentary filmmaker who lives and breathes in the visual world. I’m enthusiastic about what it signals: innovation in the way journalists are approaching storytelling.

We’re thinking about how to tell stories from the outset not in terms of video vs. audio vs. text, or short-form vs. long-form — but in terms of whatever the right form may be.

Maybe a piece of reporting is a visceral, visually compelling story that’s meant to be a documentary. Maybe it will unfold with the most impact as a really thoughtful written piece. Maybe it’s an interactive combination of both. I’m seeing a new openness to this sort of right-form experimentation among journalists, and in 2015, I believe we will see this exploration expand. As a result, we’ll see more and more visual storytelling breakthroughs in unexpected places.

My hope is that documentary journalists will challenge themselves as well, and move boldly toward interactive, innovative visual storytelling — something we’ll be experimenting with here at Frontline. We’ve always been committed to the documentary, and we believe the form, with its immersive power to take audiences to places they’ve never been, will endure for a very long time. But technology is catching up with some of our journalistic visions in thought-provoking ways.

As a MIT Open Doc Fellow this year, I’ve been exploring the storytelling opportunities presented by virtual reality technologies like Oculus Rift. We haven’t seen this approach applied frequently in current affairs documentaries — but in 2015, we’ll be working with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Secret Location to see if it will work for Frontline’s audience. Will virtual reality deliver a journalism experience and immerse our audience in the story in a way we couldn’t before? Or will it feel too intrusive?

We don’t have the answers yet. But we do have the tools and technologies at our fingertips to be creative, and to translate our journalistic instincts and imperatives forward in meaningful ways. Coupled with more and more buy-in for innovation and right-form thinking inside journalism, the moment we’re in feels like something of a renaissance. I’m thrilled to be part of it.

Raney Aronson-Rath is deputy executive producer of Frontline.