Designing the Future of Journalism: An Interview with USC’s Nonny de la Pena (Part One)

My Journalism colleagues at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism are on the cutting edge of national and international conversations about the Future of Journalism. Our school is a site of experimentation and deliberation, sketching and testing new models, which see the emerging media environment not simply as a challenge to traditional forms of news but also as an opportunity to expand resources available to reporters. The School has the right mix of vision and pragmatism — trying to imagine new possibilities, trying to test them against current realities. Or as Annenberg’s dean Ernest Wilson likes to put it, the school is a place where “cool stuff happens.” (Well, sometimes he puts it in a bit more colorful language.)

This past week, one of my Annenberg colleagues, Nonny De La Pena, received a Knight News Challenge grant to support the work she is doing around Stroome, a web platform which provides tools and communities to support the collaborative production and remixing of news content.

I had known De La Pena for some yearss and was delighted to find her here when I moved to the west coast. She’s constantly probing, trying to imagine new affordances for presenting information to publics in compelling ways, and she’s got the hacker instinct to prototype and test her ideas as soon into the process as possible. She has long sought to promote and map the space of immersive journalism. Don’t know what that is? You will soon.

The following interview was conducted about a month ago, when Stroome had first launched, and it lays out some of her key research initiatives — from Gone Gitmo, which uses Second Life to explore human rights issues, to Stroome, which provides citizen journalists new tools for collaboration.

What do you mean by “immersive journalism”? What are some examples of work which falls under this description?

Immersive journalism is a novel way to utilize gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories. These stories can be set in online virtual worlds such as Second Life or produced using a head-tracked head-mounted display system that puts the individual into a virtual body or with a body-tracking Cave. Capitalizing on the sense of presence that comes with well-made virtual reality scenarios, these platforms provide an immersive experience that can offer unprecedented access to the sights and sounds, and possibly feelings and emotions that accompany the news.

Participants move through the story as a digital representation of themselves or as one of the subjects about which the story is being told. Visual and audio primary source material from the physical world reinforce the concept that participants are experiencing a nonfiction story, with the video, sounds or photographs acting on the narrative. For example, video that triggers at key points in the virtual landscape remind a participant that the computer generated environment is grounded in the physical world. Scripted events that create a first person interaction with the reportage can also help create a feeling of “being there.” Also, participants can query or interact with the elements around them to learn more about the details or context of the news story.

In collaboration with digital media artist Peggy Weil, we have built several prototypes. Gone Gitmo, a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison built in Second Life, allows participants to explore a place that is inaccessible to the average American citizen and press. (In fact, the Pentagon just kicked out four reporters who have been covering the prison for years.) Gone Gitmo includes an experience on what it might be like to be detained, hooded and then imprisoned in Camp X-Ray. It also examines the ramifications of losing habeas corpus rights. Another prototype using Second Life, Cap & Trade, is a news report on the carbon market that sends people on a journey to follow the money in order to try to better understand the complexities and human consequences of trading carbon credits.

A third prototype is based on the interrogation logs of Detainee 063, Mohammed Al Qahtani, who had been declared tortured by the Bush. Built at the Event Lab in Barcelona with Mel Slater and his team, we used head mounted display (HMD) technology to put participants into the virtual body of a detainee who is held in what is referred to as a “stress position.” When the participants look around, they see a virtual mirror and the figure in that mirror, a digital avatar who looks like a detainee, moves in unison with the participant. Participants also wear a breathing strap that programs their avatars to breathe at the same time, further enhancing the sense of virtual body ownership. Throughout, the sounds of the Al Qahtani interrogation plays as if it is coming from the next room. While research data was not collected on this particular prototype, every participant anecdotally reported that their body was hunched over in a stress position when in fact they were sitting upright.

What relationship exists if any between “immersive journalism” and “news gaming”?

News games embrace gaming protocols. The player undertakes a task or pursues a goal, voluntarily constrained by agreed upon rules, and must take action to advance position. Progress is often measured by indicators such as levels or points. In contrast, a participant in immersive journalism isn’t playing a game but is put into an experience where she is participating and affected by events but may or may not have agency to change a situation. Immersive journalism also parallels a news narrative playing out in the physical world much like a piece in a newspaper or segment on television and while one might experience the story from different starting points, the story itself should not shift. Of course, that makes immersive journalism less available for irony or political commentary that news games like Gonzalo Frasco’s September 12 achieve so successfully. In that game, you try to shoot terrorists on a crowded street, which means bystanders are always at risk. Moreover, whenever you launch a missle, the game spawns multiple replacements until the screen is overrun with terrorists.

How do we overcome the association which often exists between virtual worlds and play/fantasy? Given these associations, will people seek out virtual experiences which are potentially unpleasant or emotionally disturbing? Will they enter into these experiences with the “wrong” mental attitude?

It is exactly because of these issues that we recognized we would have to deal sensitively with questionable interrogation practices in Gone Gitmo — we do not torture your avatar. We knew that there were many ways torture could become trivialized. However, as these environments become as ubiquitous as the 2D internet is today, I believe these spaces will become a natural environment for experiencing both fiction and non-fiction. Already children are growing up using avatars in populated virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Pixie Hollow. Our web, which uses Google or other 2D spaces as a point of entry, is quite lonely for them — nobody is there.

Nonny de la Peña is a Senior Research Fellow exploring Immersive Journalism, a novel way to utilize gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories. Her recent projects include, “Gone Gitmo,” a virtual Guantanamo Bay Prison in Second Life, which was prototyped with funding from the MacArthur Foundation and employs first person experience and spatial narrative. Another project, “IPSRESS”, is a collaboration with the Event Lab in London and Barcelona which investigates the use of head mounted display technology to evoke feelings of presence in reportage. A former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, de la Peña has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Time Magazine, Hispanic and others. She has also directed and produced a number of feature documentary films that have been screened on national television and at theaters, festivals, and special events in more than 50 cities around the globe.

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