Mobile journalism goes virtual

“Telling complex news stories requires all hands on deck, and immersing the reader or viewer in a scene is key.”

Mobile journalism goes virtual in 2016. It will be immersive, engaging and empathetic.

allissa-richardsonFor the past two years, we’ve watched mobile devices allow people from marginalized communities bear witness to police brutality. From the fatal chokehold of New York’s Eric Garner in July 2014, to the fatal shooting of South Carolina’s Walter Scott in April 2015, ordinary people wielding cellphone cameras have captured the final moments of citizens who died at the hands of law enforcement officers. We have watched as passionate protestors who were moved by these videos took to the streets. We have also watched as legacy media outlets, such as Time magazine, allowed photographs taken by amateur mobile journalists to appear on its cover. (For the record: Devin Allen is beyond awesome.) The message has been clear: Telling complex news stories requires all hands on deck, and immersing the reader or viewer in a scene is key.

While immersive journalism is not new (thanks to the intrepid work of Nonny de la Pena), we now have a perfect storm of storytelling tools that promise to take it to the next level. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now have smartphones, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Now, all news audiences need are virtual reality headsets to place them in the center of a news story. The market is poised to provide just that. While VR was a non-starter back in the days of 1990s grunge fashion, it snuck back onto the scene like a pair of Doc Martens this year. (Coincidence? Maybe not.)

Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, taking Palmer Luckey’s brainchild out of his parent’s garage and into the hands of eager storytellers everywhere. The consumer edition will ship in the first quarter of 2016. The Oculus will compete with nearly a half dozen other VR headsets made especially for mobile devices, such as Samsung’s Gear VR, the Zeiss VR One, Google Cardboard, the Archos VR, and the Freefly VR headsets. This crowded marketplace will necessitate some of the most sophisticated storytelling we have seen in a long while, by both professional and citizen journalists. If VR headsets become as ubiquitous as mobile phones, news audiences will want to feel more like eyewitnesses, even though they may be worlds away.

ABC has begun to experiment with 360º videos on the unrest in Syria. The Associated Press recently published a story about northern France’s largest migrant camp. The New York Times sent 1.2 million Google Cardboard headsets to its subscribers. And the Tow Center for Digital Journalism claims that “virtual reality appears to be on the cusp on mainstream adoption.”

The promise of VR is that it can connect news audiences to stories emotionally, but this means that we will likely see journalists convening in 2016 to discuss the ethical dilemmas this new format may pose. Virtual re-enactments, for example, must be as accurate as possible. And what about that pesky notion of journalistic objectivity? Will we eschew it to now tow the documentary line? Only 2016 will tell.

In the meantime, what I know for sure is that legacy media will not be the only ones experimenting with this new storytelling format. Back when I launched the Mobile Journalism Lab in 2010 and 2012 at two universities in Maryland, I knew that everyday people could one day use cellphones to speak truth to power in the dynamic ways we have witnessed this year. This time, as VR makes its triumphant return, I am going to bet again on the amateur. With the right headset, a state-of-the-art smartphone, and a little practice, I am excited to see the new voices that will emerge across the news ecosystem. Mobile journalism + VR is here — for everyone.

Allissa Richardson teaches journalism at Bowie State University and was a 2014 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow.