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January 03 2011

17:41

Nonny de la Peña on “Gone Gitmo,” Stroome and the future of interactive storytelling

I recently talked about journalism and storytelling with Nonny de la Peña, who is a senior research fellow in immersive journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, where she explores 3-D environments for news, nonfiction and documentary. She is also co-founder of Stroome.com, a community that allows online collaborative remixing of visual journalism. A graduate of Harvard University with 20 years of news experience, de la Peña is a former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine and many other publications. Her award-winning documentary films have screened on national television and at theaters in more than 50 cities around the world.

I met de la Peña in London last summer and was particularly curious to hear her thoughts on “Gone Gitmo,” an immersive storytelling installation built as a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, “Gone Gitmo” was constructed inside Second Life and appeared in prototype at the Bay Area Video Coalition. Users who enter the project experience a virtual detention inside the prison camp, with documentary footage embedded to create spatial narrative. De la Peña and I connected again last month via Skype to discuss her work. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

You have explained that the main idea of immersive journalism “is to allow the participant, typically represented as a digital avatar, to actually enter a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story.” Immersive systems give the participant “access to the sights and sounds, and possibly feelings and emotions, that accompany the news.” How would you explain your main motivation to explore immersive journalism?

Immersive journalism really comes from understanding that there is a growing use of virtual and gaming platforms in which individuals are extremely comfortable with a virtual body. Using that as a starting point, I began to consider what that might mean for nonfiction. In the same way documentary grew in parallel with fiction film, I believe immersive journalism (which can also be considered as immersive documentary or immersive nonfiction) has an appropriate potential using new technologies. My journalistic work has often considered human rights issues, which makes it more likely such issues will be reflected in my immersive journalism work.

However, there are some very interesting questions that arise. For example, does the fact that the stories are accessed through a virtual body mean that they are necessarily subjective experiences? How do we ensure “objectivity?”

Our director of the journalism school at Annenberg, Geneva Overholser, really feels that transparency is the key here. If we can point to our sources, provide excellent research and be open to comment and criticism, immersive journalism can live up to its potential. In a sense, it’s simply about applying traditional journalistic principles to the new technologies.

Your work, as you say, is interrogating the phenomenology of narrative journalism. It seems to me that 3-D animation still presents a barrier to verisimilar storytelling in a way that “live action” or photographic realism does not…

I am not sure that is true. I think that “experience” can have value, especially given stories that are inaccessible. For example, Gitmo is off limits to most citizens and press, so we’ve made it accessible. You can read all you want to about the carbon markets, but when you literally follow the money, does that make the story better understood? And yet, the video released in the Baha Mousa case is extraordinarily disturbing, but when we built our piece in Mel Slater’s lab, that video had not yet been released. I would suggest we did a pretty good job considering that the information came from International Red Cross data and interrogation logs.

Now, what is the role of realism?  If the graphics get better, will the experiences become more comparable to the realism of video now? Mel’s work has shown that the video graphics don’t have to be great to work. Still, the last piece I saw in his lab on understanding violence used extremely good audio and dialogue (as well as very good voice actors). In terms of current technology, one thing I can say: If the audio is bad, forget it.

Yet that exact same premise holds true in documentary filmmaking. If you have bad lighting but good audio, the drama can still be pronounced. Without good audio, even the best sequences can fail.

So orality and sound still play a major role in storytelling…

Yes.

Are you concerned by the possible ethical implications? The proximity with video games, even serious games, the connotations of 3-D animation…

I am always concerned about ethical implications. I think the history of the use of propaganda makes it clear that we have to be ever vigilant.

I’m thinking of the widespread discourse of the first-person shooter for instance, in video games. Will people want to be in the place of the perpetrators? How would a journalist go about that, how to control the script?

I have gotten a lot of pushback on the Gitmo piece that we did not tell the story of the soldiers there. But as studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment make clear, giving people the role of the soldier can create some pretty intense scenarios. We decided it wasn’t appropriate for this project although we would be absolutely happy to have their experiences recounted in some way on the site. I would agree that the first-person shooter has to be considered carefully and ethically, but it would be a knee-jerk reaction to just shut down this avenue of storytelling based on that issue. For example, check out what happened with the Columbine game at Slamdance.

Would you say that in these exercises of immersive journalism or storytelling, the user, though he or she experiences situations physically, retains a level of passivity?

Very good question. The fact the user can move through the story raises a lot of issues. I have an earlier paper, when I was just starting to sort out the ideas about immersive journalism, which discusses such passive moments as the “embodied edit.” In “Gitmo,” that would be when we move the user along the “story” by teleporting them from place to place within the build. However, there are many moments when the user makes the decision where to go; still, they are within the context of the “news report” that is clearly consistent with reading about a story or watching it on TV.

A key aspect of your immersive journalism project is the blurring of boundaries between different fields, and one of the main elements in immersive experiences may be what you called the embodied edit. And Stroome allows users to remix, which is a form of editing…

Yes, considering how stories can be told differently in this new wave of technology. I consider immersive journalism still under development, but Stroome is about trying to give users a way to start telling stories today, collaboratively, journalistically and from different perspectives. For example, rather than write a letter to an editor or call up a TV station to dispute veracity, the audience member could just remix the story, telling it the way they see it.

Do you think that’s where journalism is headed, to giving users/readers the tools to re-tell the stories?

Once again, I quote Geneva (although I understand she borrowed it as well): The group formerly known as the audience, they are participants. Whether as sophisticated producers of content, or if they commit an “act of journalism” by capturing key footage on cell phones, Stroome supports both approaches.

How receptive do you think the major players in journalism are to this new form of storytelling, one open to empowering “the group formerly known as the audience”?

I think they are finding it very difficult. Even J-schools. I heard one major dean complain: “We are training professional journalists, not citizen journalists!” So they still aren’t recognizing how much this has all blurred. However, as Julian Assange explains in the “Wiki Rebels” documentary, at first he turned all of the data loose hoping that it would get vetted by the public, but ended up having to turn to journalists to analyze and distill and present to the public. However, what we are offering at Stroome offers really nice pillars of ways to collaborate and support. It is designed to consider how content is discoverable and not overwhelming.

And it is curated by a community and enabled by a specific platform…

Yes.

So, what you are suggesting is an important redefinition of the role of the nonfiction storyteller and therefore of the press…

Yes. In some ways both ends of the spectrum achieving the same goal. In one, similar editorial control present with news orgs now comes with having to design and build a 3-D immersive space. In the other, Stroome opens the landscape to all. Yet both focus on user participation with journalism that is unique to our technological present.

Where do you see written journalism going in this landscape?

We will always need good analysis.

Perhaps as ancillary material for the immersive or audiovisual experiences?

Yes, I agree. And sometimes the immersive component will be ancillary to the text.

—–

[Ernesto Priego is researching comics and narrative as a Ph.D. candidate in information studies in the U.K. at University College London. He has written previously for Nieman Storyboard on the death of Harvey Pekar, manga memoir and on comics as narrative journalism.]

December 14 2010

15:00

Better curation on Twitter, pushback against anonymity, and more new startups: Predictions for 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Bob Giles, Alan Murray, David Beard, Geneva Overholser, Alan D. Mutter, Melissa Ludtke, Brooke Kroeger, Jan Schaffer, and Ory Okolloh.

We also want to hear your predictions: take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results later this week.

Newspaper companies will regret the deep cutting of newsgathering resources as the economy recovers and advertisers conclude that local newspapers are no longer vital sources of community coverage. Moreover, newspapers will follow their historical pattern of being slow to adapt to what’s new — in this case, opportunities offered by the iPad and other tablets.

This will be the year when collaboration finally, truly, really takes hold. Smart legacy media leaders will determine what they and they alone can do best, then ally themselves with others who can supply the rest. Radio, TV, web-based publications, print publications, bloggers, international and national news providers, journalism schools, nonprofits, and commercial media — the smart ones will figure out their niche and how to partner (strategically) with others to be sure their work is seen. The public will be the biggest beneficiary.

This will be the year we finally realize how big a mistake it was to relinquish our time-honored aversion to anonymity when we went on the web. Having been persuaded that we had to adapt to the culture we were joining, we lost one of the key distinctions that differentiates journalism from other info sources. Bring naming names back, and vanquish the trolls!

1. The emergence of a great WebSocket live-blogger: working from livecasts, using text on the right rail, an articulate, knowledgeable, irreverent commenter can deconstruct and add background as events go on, in a step up from current chat technology. Others might employ VH1 Pop-Up Video or Mystery Science Theater 3000 styles, with fact bubbles on livecasts.

2. A really organized Twitter wire service — or a use of Twitter for a really valuable compilation that might move beyond a Twitter list or paper.li. A favorite of mine for journalists — Muck Rack Daily.

Alan Murray, deputy managing editor and executive editor, online, The Wall Street Journal

2011 will be the year of the tablet — dozens of them coming out, and some might even be good. Because each one requires a different build, it may also be the year in which the techies outnumber the journalists!

But 2011 won’t be the year of WebTV. Cable companies can’t hold back the tide forever — but they can hold it back for a few more years.

The major trends to watch in 2011 will be same as those we saw this year — just more intense:

Mobile: A growing amount of information will be consumed on smartphones and tablets vs. PCs, laptops, TV, radio, or print. Static content will feel stiff, suffocating, and subliminally inauthentic in an age of near-epidemic skepticism toward almost every institution of society — particularly the media.

Transactional: Consumers actively will shop for news, entertainment, commercial information, and, of course, actual goods and services. As they gain confidence in themselves and their peers to judge everything from Federal Reserve policy to the best place for a burrito, the time, attention, and importance they attach to conventional news and advertising will decline.

Social: Facebook, YouTube, WikiLeaks, and other consumer-driven media will assert greater control over what is covered, how it’s covered and what it means. (See also: “Don’t touch my junk.”) News, entertainment, and advertising are destined to increasingly blur together into something you might call info-tainment-ising. The shrinking authority of conventional news and advertising in this environment will devalue legacy media and commercial brands.

Denial: Deeply invested in their traditionally lucrative business models, legacy media companies for the most part will not move fast enough to create fresh news, entertainment, and advertising products to respond to the prodigiously empowered, self-actuated consumer. If the mainstream media companies continue to nibble cautiously around the edges of innovation, then dozens of daring competitors will merrily fill the void to build shockingly efficient businesses to poach what’s left of the once-fat legacy franchises.

The word “new” will show up less and less as an attached-at-the-hip adjective describing media.

What constitutes “value” in the work journalists do will be a question much pondered — with answers leading to greater awareness of its essential contextual and curatorial role in the era of information overload.

Redesigns in newsrooms’ seating plans will happen more often as editors mesh the tech folks with the journalists and find ways they can work together to feed news and information to the web, mobile phones, tablets, and print — and do so with storytelling techniques offering greater visual appeal.

The word “eyeballs” will send ones like “circulation” and “subscription” to the same place where typewriters now reside.

Audience fragmentation will continue apace, while at the same time media and tech powerhouses will look to consolidate their influence by acquiring social-media pieces they don’t already have.

Jan Schaffer, executive director, J-Lab

Collaboration will be the new competition. News startups within metro areas and between metro areas will increasingly work together to share content, trade links, connect silos and possible seek group support.

The conversation about sustaining news startups will move beyond ad sales and into such possibilities as stewardship models for journalism.

More statewide investigative news startups will launch.

We will begin to develop a deeper conversation about innovations in journalism itself, not just the delivery systems for journalism.

Alas, 2011 will not be the year we divine the ultimate profit, nonprofit, and/or combination model for sustaining high quality journalism. But by December, we will know substantially more than we do now about what does — and does not — have real potential to work.

Ory Okolloh, co-founder and executive director, Ushahidi

Wikileaks/Cablegate will remind us of the important curation role that journalists/newspapers play and will encourage more collaborative and investigative journalism based on open data.

January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

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