The multiple faces of witnessing

“Footage gathered by ‘citizen camera witnesses’ and professional journalists will increasingly be used to promote greater connection to and understanding of events, and to ultimately decrease the distance between the lives and experiences of others.”

In the coming year, journalists will experiment with and debate emergent forms of virtual reality and drone witnessing. Virtual reality and drone technology will both continue to challenge journalists on their ideals of objectivity, their ethics of representation, their perceptions of distance and immersion, and the connections they seek with audiences. In short, journalistic witnessing will be increasingly mediated in new substantive ways by technology. Like previous technological leaps in journalism, this evolution will be dependent on the people who created it and how audiences use it. As John Durham Peters wrote, “witness is the paradigm case of a medium: the mean by which the experience is supplied to others who lack the original.”

valerie-belair-gagnon-taylor-owenOn the weekend of November 7, 2015, The New York Times sent free Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers to its subscribers. Users who owned or could borrow a smartphone were able to view a virtual reality documentary about displaced people from Lebanon, South Sudan, and Ukraine. This single act brought a nascent field of practice and experimentation to a large and influential audience.

Significant advances in head-mounted displays and 360º/3D video capture technologies have made cinematic VR possible, and this year saw a first generation of experiments by Frontline, The Associated Press, the BBC, Gannett, Vice, Fusion, and The New York Times. Both the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Gannett released reports exploring the potential of VR Journalism (Taylor Owen was a co-author of the Tow Report).

In parallel, this past year saw drone technologists and journalists pushing the frontiers of storytelling, particularly in locations where the law has been more lenient to the use of drone for reporting. This is allowing reporters to capture footage from new locations, closer to dangerous events and using new capture and modeling technologies. Examples of drone witnessing are multiple, and mostly outside the United States; you can find examples of a video from above, crisis relief footages, or 3D reconstruction.

Although differing in many ways (each provides a different socio-technical system), virtual reality and drone technology will in parallel continue to raise important questions on perceptions of realities and the role of professional journalists. Footage gathered by “citizen camera witnesses” and professional journalists will increasingly be used to promote greater connection to and understanding of events, and to ultimately decrease the distance between the lives and experiences of others. In so doing, new technologies that bring audiences closer to events without perceived mitigation, are in actual fact highly constructed acts, that challenge journalistic norms in new and important ways. In VR, what are the ethics of positioning a user in a constructed scene under the pretense of them experiencing presence? For drone use, how do new positions of access stretch our rules and legal regimes around consent?

The question for journalists and researchers will be how are those perceptions of reality produced and what impact do they have on those that experience them?

With these new technologies also comes significant opportunity. New narrative forms are emerging to tell compelling stories, new production processes, and skill sets are being brought into newsrooms, and new ethical questions are bringing a new lens to old debates about representation, and an opportunity is emerging to move beyond tired binaries of objectivity versus subjectivity. But in the end, these emerging practices will be as much determined by the interests and values of their technological developers as by the ways they are used for journalism — all the more reason to reflect thoughtfully on their use in the year ahead.

Valerie Belair-Gagnon is executive director and research scholar at the Yale Information Society Project. Taylor Owen is an assistant professor of digital media and global affairs at the University of British Columbia.