Charting Documentary's Futures: An Interview with MIT's William Uricchio (Part Four)

The report’s focus on immersion as a dimension of news and documentary may be new to many readers, despite the New York Time’s recent venture into virtual reality. So, can you share a bit more about the current state of immersive journalism and why you think this is a trend which we should be paying attention to rather than a passing fad? How would you respond to fears that immersion is more a tool for shaping emotional response rather than a resource for fostering reasoned argument? Can news stories be both immersive (and thus framed by a particular vantage point) and objective in the traditional sense of the term? To answer your last question first, if we take immersive technology in the form of VR to mean 360-degree, 3D imaging systems (there is a lot of slippage in the meanings of both ‘immersive’ and ‘VR”), I actually think that it’s easier to be less subjective, or at least to circumvent the problem of a particular point-of-view common to linear narratives in film, video, words and even traditional photography.

One of its affordances as a medium, and a great advantage or disadvantage depending on one’s goals, is that VR offers a surfeit of information. This makes directing the user’s attention or ‘constructing the gaze’ a difficult task. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons VR storytelling is still in its infancy: how to impose structure and direction, other than to mimic film conventions? In these early days, VR storytelling feels a lot like the first decade of cinematic storytelling, when the conventions from another medium (theater) informed the endeavors of a new medium still finding its feet.

I recently experienced Waves of Grace, a terrific project about an Ebola survivor whose immunity offers a story of hope, made by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk for the UN in collaboration with Vice Media. It’s clear that the makers have a point of view, a story that they want to communicate. And while reader-response theory tells us that viewers can and will make their own meanings from texts, in this case, the viewer has 360 degrees at his disposal, and in my case, I’m pretty sure that I constructed a counter-narrative possibly abusing my freedom to look around, to look ‘behind’ or opposite the makers’ focus, to see things they weren’t talking about and perhaps didn’t want to take up.

More objective? I think the viewer has more options, can look around at what would normally be ‘off-screen space’ in a film or video image, and that means viewers have greater latitude in figuring out not only what they are supposed to look at, but also the larger setting and context.

The bigger issue, according to some research, is that we might be processing these encounters the same way we do real-world experiences, and not the way we process film or photography or words. That is, we might be processing them as experience not representation.

Emile Bruneau’s work in cognitive neuroscience at MIT, for instance, focuses on synaptic plasticity and explores the extent to which VR experiences play out differently than the representational domain we are more familiar with. He’s doing this, among other places, with user experiences of Karim Ben Khalifa’s The Enemy that I mentioned earlier, and it’s very exciting work even if worrying for its larger implications. Emile is coming at it from a conflict resolution perspective, which is terrific; but if his thesis is correct, we need to understand the process much better in order to brace ourselves for the onslaught of other less benevolent appropriations.

I think immersive experiences put a new twist on the old ‘showing-telling’ distinction. Showing is far more difficult to contain than telling, seems more impactful in terms of how it is experienced and remembered, and as Confucius tells us, can be re-told in thousands of words and thus in countless ways. VR takes showing to the next level, not only always presenting us with an excess of information, but in so doing, forcing us to attend to only a small portion of what is available, and giving us that information as experience. I think it would be difficult to argue that it is a tool for reasoned argument – the abstraction of words and numbers is still best for that, with image and sound beginning the slippery slope to affect (I guess that’s what the Reformation was all about!).

But VR can be a great attention-getter, a quick and easy way to create a sense of presence and place. By creating the impression of being somewhere, by giving the viewer the freedom to look up, down and all around, a lot of crucial contextual information can be derived that would, in more limited linear scenarios, require careful selection and plotting, only to wind up giving us the director’s or writer’s point of view.

Immersion can offer a counterweight to indifference. It can lure us into being interested in a topic we might otherwise gloss over, can encourage a search for facts, or a desire to learn. Rational debate, as a mode of discourse, is usually driven by some sort of motive. Immersion can help to create that motive, but – at least until we develop better ways of shaping and directing immersive experiences – it is not, in itself, a mode of discourse.

So with this in mind, I would not dismiss it as a journalistic fad, but rather look to it working in tandem with other media expressions. Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey (Dan Edge, working with TheSecretLocation) uses Google Cardboard, an inexpensive and relatively easy way to reach the public, to create a 3D 360 degree immersive environment tied to Frontline’s Outbreak, a broadcast documentary. This Frontline production is a great example of forward-looking journalism, bound at the hip with documentary of course. It played out across media with partnerships and media manifestations from the New York Times to Youtube, and the immersive app was, in that sense, just another arrow in the quiver of an organization trying to expand and engage its audience while expanding the modalities of getting its story across.

Emphasizing audience engagement poses its own issues, since news organizations have historically distinguished themselves from the commercial drivers that shape the rest of their network’s operations and journalists often resent the push to reach more viewers. At the same time, news organizations have seen their job as informing but not necessarily mobilizing the public, a goal more likely to be associated with documentary producers or activists. So, in what senses should journalists care about engagement?

The 20th Century is rich with embodiments of the journalistic profession, from news hounds, to crusaders, to hard-bitten cynics, to gonzo journalists, each articulating a different set of relations between journalists and their publics as well as their larger institutional bases. And while it’s probably true that many of today’s practitioners hew to notions of independence, integrity and authority that would be familiar to journalists of generations gone by, the increasingly dire conditions facing many American print organizations seems to be encouraging a more public-friendly stance.

I have the impression that many of the journalists who a few years back were forced to include their email address with their bylines and grudgingly cope with tweets, are now more willing to interact with their public and to even track the number of hits their stories are getting.

News organizations, for all of their rhetoric about informing the public, not mobilizing it, also seem to be changing. This seems driven as much by the political polarization of the American public sphere, as by charges from the political right that ‘the media’ is too leftist, as by an outright political agenda on the part of some news organizations and funders (Fox News and Richard Mellon Scaiff’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, to name but two). That Fox News trademarked “Fair & Balanced” and “We Report. You Decide” as news slogans is one of the clearest signs that the old platitudes have been transformed into marketing tools, not commitments. Journalism – just like the larger environment it inhabits – is changing.

All that said, I think the engagement issue plays out on a somewhat different dimension. It’s similar to what I said about immersive VR: it can help to generate interest, while making no claims to being a mode of discourse. First, it can indeed support the bottom line by attracting and holding readers and viewers. That’s a double-edged sword, of course, as the annals of Yellow Journalism demonstrate. But the history of Pulitzer’s New York World also shows that an engaged audience will stick with a paper even when the reporting improves! In other words, engagement is independent from journalistic quality in the traditional sense.

Second, engagement can be extensive. It can help to move people from an interest in the reports they read or see to the actual world and civic processes around them. If the journalistic information is solid, then whatever interventions follow will at least have the benefit of being well-informed.

Third, I think the pursuit of engagement has led to some very interesting innovations. Our report discusses Localore and WBEZ-Chicago’s Curious City, a program where the ideas for what should be covered and the ensuing research itself comes from the public. It’s a great example of co-creation, and how it can foster community engagement. In a very different way, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Off/Page and Storyworks projects are each based on partnerships with non-traditional players (YouthSpeaks, a literary nonprofit, and Tides Theater, respectively) to report news stories in ways that speak to particular communities. And The Oakland Tribune’s Oakland Voices (with sister projects in Sacramento, California, and Jackson, Mississippi) trains local residents to become multi-media storytellers, which extends its range of news coverage and points of view, and enhances community engagement. These developments and more like them are essential steps towards pushing the journalistic form ahead, towards helping it reach publics that it has too long ignored, and towards keeping it in step with the ever-changing needs of its publics.

Engagement is user-centric. Rather than proclaiming from the lofty position of professional authority, it invites involvement, situates relevance, demonstrates the need for further information and consideration.

Alas, the news no longer seems self-evident. Today’s public faces a withering array of choices, a number of which pander shamelessly to their interests. It’s an empowered public, which is not to say an informed one; a public with tools, access, and the means to express and share ideas. These developments are some of the reasons we believe that journalism is moving away from being a straightforward transmitter of information to a redefined position as a convener, curator and shaper of an informed conversation between publics and sources. It’s the difference between a monologue and a dialogue. And today’s public is increasingly part of the conversation.

One of our key bits of advice to journalists is to “begin with the user…”. While we are still in the early days of this new dialogic info-scape, acknowledging that the folks out there in the public are more than mere recipients of whatever journalism organizations cast their way seems like an essential starting point. They are potential partners (Curious City), localizers (Off/Page), people with particular interests and needs that can be reached through a number of the interactive, immersive, and engaging approaches possible with today’s technologies.

If a significant public does its reading and viewing on mobile devices, then we need to think about reaching them there, not simply by squeezing the printed page down to phone screen size, and not simply finding alternate ways to convey that information in small format. We also need to consider users’ desires to navigate information, compare it, share it, and at times, even produce it. We need to find a way to go beyond journalism as information transmission alone, and to think about ways of addressing its ritual dimensions that I mentioned earlier when citing James Carey. And all this while somehow maintaining the reference values that quality journalism represents. No small challenge, but we’ve figured out the quality news and transmission bit, so the next step is to upgrade significantly the role of user in our calculus.

News organizations and documentary producers struggle with the phenomenon of user-generated content. So-called “citizen journalists” are often pit against professional news-gatherers and there’s concerns that grassroots media may not meet the same standards of accuracy and ethics as that produced by professional journalists. Are there good ways for news organizations to collaborate with the public in order to expand their capacities without necessarily sacrificing older standards about quality reporting?

This picks up from the previous question, and it’s the key issue in a change from monologue to dialogue. What do we do with the conversation partner, especially when there are so few productive behavioral precedents available and even fewer ways to guarantee the quality of the conversation? Transitions are always vexed: how much of the old to retain? What of the new will actually stick? And meanwhile, how are we supposed to navigate the uncertain mix of signals?

Recognizable standards and the ability to distinguish fact from fiction are more important than ever, particularly given the ever-growing cacophony of sources and voices enabled by our communication technologies. This is in part a literacy problem, in a world where diversity brings with it multiple and competing truths; and in part a curation problem, where reputation turns on appropriate and timely selection in a very chaotic information environment.

But the stakes are enormous in an environment that offers countless invitations for the public to share, and in sharing, opportunities to build communities of interest and affiliation. These energies can be directed towards civic engagement and informed debate, or they can be siphoned off to support the narrow interests of closed communities. Journalism, at least in my view, should be a social binder.

This is a fast moving area, and there are several approaches to journalistic collaboration with the public to keep an eye on. For starters, there are precedents that we can learn from such as collaborative news networks. A few years back, Anita Chan, wrote her CMS thesis about networks such as Slashdot and Kuro5hin that developed various user-based systems to rank and filter participant-generated stories. Or we might look at the very different curation systems in play with Reddit, The Guardian, the New York Times and other organizations that have sought to embrace user comments and leads. Stay tuned for more on this when Anika Gupta, another CMS student, finishes her thesis later this spring on comments, moderators and news communities in journalism!

Or we might look to a growing number of automated verification tools out there like Scoopshot and CrowdVoice, many developed thanks to the Knight News Challenge. And then there are working partnerships between the public and journalists in the form of The Guardian’s “The Counted” that I mentioned earlier, in which The Guardian’s reporters do the work of verification on information supplied in part by the public.

While the verdict is still out, there’s no denying the role of the public in uploading information on events as they happen, and in commenting on, supplementing and contesting journalistic reports whether in the press or not. In really simplistic terms, on one hand, the public’s contributions can be likened to sensory input, the raw data that something is happening that will quickly make its way to the brain for the dots to be connected. It’s the nervous system at work, with a division of function that makes good use of both nerve ends and cognitive processing.

But on the other hand, public responses to published journalism (I learn a lot by reading The Guardian’s comments sections!) invoke a slightly different analogy. In this case, it’s all at the processing level and similar to the internal debates we can have with ourselves. We reach a conclusion, but then consider the situation from different angles, or factor in different data points. These comments, if a civil tone can reign, go a long way towards improving journalism by offering contrasting views, linking to sources not mentioned in the original, and demonstrating the potentials of an incredibly productive partnership.

How does this report fit within the longer term vision of the Open-Doc Lab? What else might people expect from you in the future?

When I founded the Open Doc Lab, I did so with the idea that the conditions for representation are changing and changing profoundly, and that documentary can benefit immensely from the particular constellation of changes facing us. Near ubiquitous cameras, good networking and software availability, an increasingly media-making public … the elements are in place for a fundamental reworking of the long established balance of power in representation.

But on the other hand, as many of your questions have indicated, there are plenty of tensions with our inherited traditions, plenty of threats to established ways of doing things, and potentially plenty of dangers especially in the shift from the known to the unknown. What do we do about notions of authorship, authorial responsibility, expertise and point of view? What’s the calculus of ethics in participatory documentaries (free labor, libel, privacy incursions, and the rest) and also in interactive ones (where we can potentially confirm world views, not expand them)? How will these new approaches and the technologies fit with established notions of storytelling, engagement and even something as basic as shared textual experiences?

These are not necessarily new questions – games have already posed some of them – but the stakes are arguably different when taking up the representational claims long held as defining for documentary. Of course this is not to say that the concept of documentary is any more stable than the inherited notion of journalism; rather, just like journalism, it is fraught with tensions and contradictions at a moment of change.

So that’s where we come in. The Open Doc Lab is research centric, of course, and these tensions and above all possibilities define our ongoing research agenda. An important component of this research takes the form of our masters students’ theses, where we’ve had some terrific work on data-driven storytelling (Heather Craig), impact assessment (Sean Flynn), live documentary (Julie Fisher), and so on. We’re also interested in extending our findings, of intervening in the ongoing development of documentary as both production and institutional practices, something that Sarah Wolozin, who is the lab’s director, has found endlessly creative ways to achieve.

And by doing this, I’d say that our bottom line intervention targets the larger issue of civic discourse. Our ongoing work with journalism is a good example of how this works. Initially, we thought that digital journalism would offer documentary an incredibly important distribution platform and audience, especially as documentary’s theatrical and broadcast venues continue to melt away. And it does. But actually, it turned out that (digital) journalism could also benefit considerably from the relationship. This turned into conversations with both communities and ultimately the report that Sarah Wolozin, the ODL team, and I prepared with the MacArthur Foundation’s support and that we’ve been talking about in this interview.

We also work with documentarians, journalists, and organizations on a more individual level. Take Frontline, an organization at the pinnacle of American broadcast documentary. David Fanning recognized the changing dynamics of the media landscape and brought in Raney Aronson, now Frontline’s executive producer, to help the series stay ahead of the curve. Raney is a fellow in our lab, and that’s led to some extremely productive conversations between our two organizations.

Or take another example: the widespread participation that is one of the most exciting affordances of the new documentary. We’ve been fortunate to be able to approach this through the work of visiting artists such as Kat Cizek, whom I mentioned earlier in the context of the NFB’s Highrise series (Kat’s work embodies the co-creation methodology, and she is wonderfully articulate about it) and through the projects of MIT colleagues such as Sasha Constanza-Chock, Vivek Bald and Christine Walley – all members of the lab – as well as with our colleagues from MIT’s Center for Civic Media.

Our fellows program has attracted a small and remarkable group of international makers, critics, technologists, and artists (for the people and profiles, see It has provided a space to share expertise and even basic things like vocabulary, to explore new technologies, and to brainstorm and incubate projects. Sarah and I would love to be able to share our work with a greater and more diverse array of people, and as well to get it out to communities where it can make a difference, and that means getting some financial legs under the fellows program, which is the task at hand.

One of the great advantages of working at a university is that we have a relatively neutral platform at our disposal (our job is to open up, not monetize). We can bring members of the industry, technologists, artists, festival organizers, advocates and policy makers together to move the field as a whole ahead. Naturally, we take advantage of this setting for convenings large and small. But we also try to move the field and the debate along by building resources.

Sarah Wolozin has been the driving spirit behind Docubase, a curated collection of hundreds of interactive projects. It includes playlists by makers, curators and technologists; a lab, where project documentation and interviews abound; a tool and resource section; and we are building up a beta-testing function for makers who want to get feedback on work in progress. It’s a tremendous resource, and the kind of thing that we will definitely keep doing as part of our commitment to field-building.

Knowledge transmission is also part of our remit – courses, workshops, lectures and the rest. I’m just back from a string of lectures across Eastern Europe as well as England, France, Germany and the Netherlands where these developments are generating ever-more interest. We’re planning to connect the dots between some of our online projects such as Docubase and Moments of Innovation and the interviews that we’ve been recording in order to offer the international public a structured learning environment, or in the language of the day, a MOOC.

As I noted earlier in response to your question about the ‘open’ in the Open Doc Lab, sharing knowledge and resources is central to the lab’s vision. But we also do our best to facilitate this new order of things through a robust set of collaborations and joint projects with Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, i-Docs and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam’s DocLab.

To give one example, Sundance’s New Frontier’s Program, Indiewire and our lab joined together for the Creating Critics program to train new critics to write about emerging digital forms in the context of a festival and to show how they relate to cinematic storytelling. It’s been great for our students, the sponsoring partners and the field, so we look forward to ramping this up in the future. We regularly partner with IDFA’s DocLab, whether for projects like Moments of Innovation or for some event or other during their festival in November.

With our base at MIT, technology is another no-brainer. We’re always on the prowl to see how various technologies can be put to the work of representation, how they might open access to a greater array of users. So for example, later this spring, we’ll be holding an event on VR that in part attempts to disambiguate the different technologies behind VR, tease out their implications … and get a sense of what new approaches are just beginning to take shape in MIT’s labs.

Finally – good news – we recently learned that the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation has given us a significant grant, allowing us to focus more on our work (and less on fundraising!) for the next few years. And it has the added value of allowing us to continue working with Kathy Im at the Foundation, while redoubling our efforts at all the things I’ve just mentioned! William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at