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Using the 360-degree video metaphor to guide reporting

by Sue Ellen Christian

The latest storytelling tool for journalists is 360-degree video. The medium allows a viewer to see all sides of a story, literally. The aptness of this metaphor for “Overcoming Bias” is too good to let pass without a brief reflection.

In November 2015, The New York Times made a virtual reality (VR) news splash with its documentary entitled “The Displaced,” about children driven from their homes due to war and persecution. Home subscribers like me received a free Google cardboard viewer with their paper that day.

More than a year earlier, in 2014, The Des Moines Register (with Gannett Digital) became the first mainstream news organization in the U.S. to use the technique of 360-degree video in its “Harvest of Change” series, which examined how Iowa farm families were dealing with demographic, economic and technological changes in America.

My capstone reporting class has begun to use the RICOH Theta 360-degree camera to shoot a series we’re calling “Work a Minute in Their Shoes.” It’s capturing 60 seconds of spherical video of various Kalamazoo workers on the job. What we are discovering is that only certain types of stories lend themselves to this form of immersive presentation. Breaking news of a public protest, for example, is a perfect event for this form of video, because there are many people to record from many vantage points. But a profile of a baker at work making bread in the early morning requires the camera to stay on her and follow her around the otherwise desolate bakery. In short, not all events require that you literally see all sides of the story.

This realization got me thinking about the bias of professional newsgathering to seek out both sides of the story. Sometimes, there isn’t a legitimate “other” point of view. For example, some partisan outlets still insist that President Obama is not legitimately a U.S. citizen. This question has been long settled by factual evidence in the form of Obama’s birth certificate. But the so-called “birthers movement” continues to champion its non-factual side of the story. Does that mean a reporter must trot it out each time he writes about Obama’s family background and/or ethnic origins?

In other instances, the story at hand is truly worth a 360-degree look. It may go beyond just two sides of the story, with multiple perspectives to capture. Chapter 5 of Overcoming Bias, Understanding Culture, Understanding Sources, discusses how social groups serve as lenses for looking at the world. Covering cultures different than one’s own requires a grasp of that culture’s history and customs, the context in which news events are considered because of the culture, and the unique perspectives of members within the culture.

Were we able to bust through the snowglobe effect of VR, were we able to bust through the artificial ceiling created by the camera’s many lenses, we would find yet more versions of truth that are influenced by culture, from religion to geography to language to income.

Immersive video has been called the future of journalistic storytelling. I hope journalists of every medium will keep this wonderful metaphor of capturing many perspectives at the fore of their thinking.

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