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Can Immersive Journalism Make Way for More Responsible Storytelling?

Dr. Sanchez Laws believes immersive technologies have the potential to introduce responsibility to journalism, and inspire people to strive for peace.

Interview by Ben Wiedmaier, Words by Kris Kopac, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Sáenz

Dr. Ana Luisa Sanchez Laws brings a profoundly unique perspective to the intersection of research, journalism, identity, conflict, and technology.

The professor at the Arctic University in Norway specifically looks at the field of peace engineering—and how different technologies have the power to transform worldviews and bridge the gap between people.

In this profile, we dive into the technological advances of immersive journalism, the awesome power of technology, and the potential to use research to fundamentally influence the world’s capability for connection and peace.

People Nerds: How would you summarize your research?

Dr. Ana Luisa Sanchez Laws: A lot of it has to do with what we call the “everyday peace perspectives”—talking about peace from below, about how our interactions can really transform conflicts. My focus has always been on the role of digital technologies and of non-formal education in organizations like museums, media, and other spaces to transform our attitudes and behaviors with the aid of technologies.

Together, these questions are forming a field called peace engineering, which focuses on all kinds of technologies and how they can be constructed, so that by their design they promote peace. That's really a driving research question: can you really do that? Especially with the contradictions that sometimes we encounter in the ways in which technologies that were designed for one purpose end up being used for something quite different.

We don't hear about technology's potential for peace as much as its...other potentials.

Today's technology was born out of a contradiction of thinking. Engineering, for instance, really started as a profession at the service of warfare. It was about designing the tools with which nations could defend themselves or engage in conflict. But of course in the progress of history, that hasn't remained the case and we have seen how much investment there has been to try to change that. There has been a shift toward responsible research and innovation, to change the way we think: whether technologies are designed to be neutral...whether that is possible or not.

We also need to think about "peace" as an action and as a verb. And you can think about it as not only being the absence of conflict, but also being actions to enhance a peaceful or a nonviolent solution. We can think about technology in the same way. How might these technologies highlight the capacity for good? I'm not naive enough to believe there aren't negative consequences, but too often the discussion lacks the focus of choice and free will.

The same capacity for negative is present for positive, purposeful uses, and we're seeing more companies communicating about the ways they're focusing on leading with purposeful, intentional design. They aren't just making it to make it, there are more conversations about consequences.

Another element is the digital-first generation, who expect more of the brands they engage with and the technologies they use. They see technology's role in shaping society and see themselves as more active participants—more than just "users"—in shaping those companies. This is happening in both professional and academic spheres.

What I found most interesting—especially at the intersection of journalism—is where the boundary might be between representation of reality to the introduction of narrative elements that might blur objectivity.

Dr. Ana Luisa Sanchez Laws
Professor at the Arctic University in Norway

How did you learn about immersive journalism (IJ)?

A few years ago I was working at a college focused on training journalists. This was also a time of major investment by tech players into different ways of storytelling. Colleagues of mine were thinking about 360 video, virtual reality, and other emergent technology and how it might impact the field.

At the same time, I was thinking about how we encounter history and placing ourselves within that history, something akin to Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck, this idea of copresence and experience digitally.

It's kind of connecting to all of that possibility, of entering a synthetic world that really feels real. One that allows us to experience alternative futures or better understand the past. What I found most interesting—especially at the intersection of journalism—is where the boundary might be between representation of reality to the introduction of narrative elements that might blur objectivity.

How does that ask us as viewers to take responsibility? What is the emotional effect? I thought there was more potential for both journalism and augmented reality technologies if they could be combined.

Is there a definition of IJ you might offer?

Immersion has always been a core part of journalism. A journalist gets close to their subjects, the context, the moving parts in order to faithfully share the story or news. Where IJ comes in is with the shifting role of the journalist to one of more responsibility. If we then can use something as immersive to question the parameters of the media ecosystem where one is a consumer, I mean as if one didn't have that responsibility or responsibility towards the stories that we are encountering, or rather to use that as a way of asking from ourselves to take responsibility to be part of it.

The technology, and the immersion it affords, asks us to be more than passive consumers. It can stoke in us the potential for action. IJ offers a chance to offer responsibility, both on the part of the journalist and the audiences. We sometimes describe it as "response-able." Can we use technology to produce a response, an action, from an inform and impact.

IJ also lets us ask questions of the wider media ecosystem. Who is accountable to whom and who has the authority to tell or share another's story? It situates journalism in a larger milieu. It's certainly a long-term process, but I think immersive practices offer a chance to shake up the business model of journalism. We "use" news, but how might we engage with it further? Do we recognize the sacrifices made to tell and share a story? And how might technology aid in foregrounding these questions?

Can you point to an example of immersive journalism and its impact?

The New York Times leveraged 360 video to document the experience of displaced peoples in a series called The Displaced. It was an early effort in IJ. It focused on specific children forced from their homes and took you to the scenes of that movement in a way we hadn't seen before: we were in a canoe as it made its way down a river, along a path through camps. Certainly the Times could have described these scenes, but the choice to take the audience there with technology created a different engagement. It made real what it meant to "migrate," at least for these children and their families.

And they didn't only use this 360 video, they also used other elements including a long form written story. So it added multiple channels so that if you want to try to understand more of the situation of these cases in this country, then you can at least get more of the information that might help you understand.

But again, it doesn't stop with their story, whether you as a person are approaching that story with the intent of also becoming more engaged with the issue. Here in our center, I had a project recently that was about the role of peace education in response to ongoing conflict.

Immersive video can be a tool for peace education by offering deeper experiential and multisensory levels of understanding. That is not only valuable to a successful journalistic enterprise, but creates an interaction that might not have been there before. It offers the chance for the peoples featured, journalists, and readers to meet in emergent ways.

It sounds like empathy is an important factor in this approach...

For sure. I've discussed different ways in which you can conceptualize empathy. For me, it's about being able to understand how the other person was feeling or what the other person was experiencing and from their point of view. Not like we are going to become the other, but that we really get a deep understanding. So if you are able to relate to how the other person is experiencing what they're experiencing, to really understand their perspective, that is clearly a powerful outcome of IJ.

I mean that is the first point in an action plan for a conflict resolution: really understanding each other's perspectives. It has, I think, haunted humanity, this impossibility to reach and to really understand what it is that you're experiencing and where it is that we are not meeting and so on. The potentials for mediation, conflict resolution, and peace are great.

I think a lot of journalism is this idea of trying to mediate. Trying to mediate not only in the sense of creating media, but also mediating the sense of peace and conflict resolution where you are trying to make parties agree on some solution. That's one step in that, creating this empathy, this understanding both in a kind of rational sense but also in an emotional sense.

If we think about the media that we have been using, which is to [represent] each other, it really doesn't capture all the richness of the interactions. And so if the person communicating the events, passing on the information has more tools to try to share that perspective to try to reveal the richness of the emotions in that environment, perhaps that is a way to create more empathy from the different sides so that we can meet each other.

Does a development like IJ ask more of an audience, of a reader?

I think, again, it's about revealing the relationships between journalist, peoples, and audiences...asking more of those "consuming" the story. The media landscape now, despite a proliferation of technology, still feels quite distant. That the action is happening "over there." Perhaps immersive journalism is a way to create contact again.

And at least the most powerful experiences that I have seen in that medium is where you form a feeling that you are there with that other person and that other person can be the journalist or the person being represented or in dialogue with the journalist and in dialogue with you. We're creating a new type of close interaction.

As for what it asks of us as an audience, we really have to think twice about whether we are just consuming news for entertainment or something more. It's a different opportunity if you're actually going there to experience the situation, and furthermore, if the technology is asking of you to take some kind of actions to do some kind of behavior that's changed the situation itself.

Also, let's remember that this idea of the use of virtual reality technologies on its own was for remote work for interaction. So there is this component of that of course it hasn't materialized yet or not so clearly, but there is an aspect of that that might be even more present in the future, especially if we move to this idea of the metaverses or multiverse.

What is this field still wrestling with...still trying to figure out?

I have an edited book coming out soon that showcases the tension between the colleagues: those who are both pessimistic and optimistic about the promises we've discussed. But we are all in a conversation about what to do next, and I think the conversation helps do is to give opportunity for newcomers to also take some responsibility in deciding what the outcome of this development is going to be. From my perspective, I hope that the pessimists help us see all of the potential problems and the optimists help foresee all of the potential solutions to those problems.

It's about taking the decision of doing something with this medium, not necessarily for the short term, but thinking about the long term about how these technologies are really transforming our societies. The debate will continue because in the academia, the engine is the debate, but I hope that there will be a lot of industrial innovation coming from that debate, too. It will take all of us.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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