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From Mike Oreskes: What We Talk About When We Talk About Virtual Reality

The message below was sent by NPR's Senior Vice President of News and Editorial Director Michael Oreskes to the NPR News staff on Nov. 9. On Saturday, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan referred to it on her blog. Her post was headlined "The Tricky Terrain of Virtual Reality."

From: Michael Oreskes
Sent: Monday, November 09, 2015 3:04 PM
Subject: What We Talk About When We Talk About Virtual Reality

Colleagues,

We are among the very best story tellers in all of journalism. Jarl likes to call it our secret sauce. It is at the heart of our history and central to our future. So we need to pay attention when another great news organization offers what it says is "a new way to tell stories."

That offer was made this week by The New York Times Magazine, which distributed a "Virtual Reality" video in which three children tell their stories of being displaced by war. If you're a home delivery subscriber you even got these cool cardboard viewers that let you experience the film as if you were on the holodeck of the starship Enterprise.

Some parents found it hard to get their smart phone back from their children because the experience was so mesmerizing. "Papi, I'm there with the children," one kid told her dad.

It's important that we talk about media moments like this and figure out the lessons for our own work.

As we have been discussing for the past few weeks, each of us has a responsibility to take ownership in our own sphere for the challenge of presenting our work in new ways and on new platforms so that we continue to create the kind of excitement and loyalty we've won for 45 years on the radio, which itself was a new technology less than a century ago. After all, immersive story telling experiences was something NPR pioneered. We called them driveway moments. The next pioneers will get to name the next breakthrough.

"[W]e are proud to carry on a tradition — one as old as journalism itself —of pressing new technologies into the service of storytelling," wrote the editor of the magazine, Jake Silverstein.

Bravo!

There is another tradition that is also as old as journalism itself. It IS journalism itself. Journalism is a discipline. It is a way of telling stories that are engaging, even entertaining, while hewing to facts as we can ascertain them. We don't take advantage of tools novelists or movie makers are free to use. They are free to walk right up to the line of truth in telling fictional stories. But we must steer as far as we can from the line of fiction if we want to remain credible to viewers and listeners who believe our stories are true.

In this V.R. experiment we should applaud, and even emulate, the effort while also studying the details of execution.

There are two sets of issues for us.

The first is inherent in the technology. The name itself sounds an alert. Our stories can't be virtually true. They must be fully real. Silverstein notes that the images shot by a V.R. rig of many cameras must be "reconciled in post-production to create a wraparound environment." Words like "reconcile" and "create" would alarm any photojournalist or documentary filmmaker. Silverstein didn't give us any more details. I've been told by others experimenting in this field that the wraparound environment is generated by a computer which fills in necessary details to create that powerful feeling of being there.

So, for example, the computer can generate the impression of being at a crime scene by blending still photos of the scene and video of the area shot later. This will seem very real. But it might not pass the high standards set by most photojournalists. Audiences for journalism shouldn't be left to wonder if a computer reconciliation changed anything that a photo editor would not have.

That brings us to a second issue, probably more relevant to us in our day to day work. We need to invent new forms of journalism. As we experiment with these new forms we must take care that our excitement with what new technology lets us do doesn't cause us to lose sight of good standards we bring with us from the old forms.

A basic tenet of journalism is that there are all sorts of things we could do to make our stories "better" that we don't do.

Remember, the radio made it possible for sportscasters to vividly describe games they never saw, riffing off of brief teletype reports. This made for gripping accounts. They just weren't true.

"The 11 minute feature about the three displaced children is very good storytelling, but flawed reporting, if you ask me," writes our Colleague Robert Siegel. "The first tip-off is the absence of a narrator, a perennial ambition of media producers and a very high hurdle (are the children really reliable narrators of their experiences? Or did they need a little help?). The shadow of a recording engineer, running, is the only hint of a crew at work. Why aspire to invisibility? And, of course, there is the ponderous music to remind us that this is a very distressing story, as if the facts of it didn't do that already."

Mark Memmott notes that in the bible of radio journalism, Sound Reporting, Jonathan Kern says that "public radio reporters and producers do not 'manufacture' scenes for news programs." It's such an important principle that we codified it in the Ethics Handbook.

"The Visuals team will tell you that we reject — or at least should reject — photos where the subjects have been asked to mug for the camera or have performed for it in some way ("Hold your gun higher." "Raise your fist." "Turn this way after you throw that rock.")," Memmott adds. "We don't use music in news pieces to manipulate listeners into feeling a certain way. The Times' VR production was beautiful to watch and hear. But it went against our standards in several ways."

Journalism needs to experiment. As we do, frank review and conversation will make the experiments more valuable. Silverstein himself said that "V.R. usually involves more coordination between filmmaker and subject than in traditional video journalism."

The world is changing so rapidly that we have to learn from all our own experiments and from everyone else's, too.

In our own innovations we need to watch carefully if new technology starts to redraw the lines that assured our work was sound journalism.

There are creative journalists at NPR and throughout public media wrestling with these issues every day. Our Storytelling Lab is tapping our creativity to test new techniques and approaches to both radio and its younger cousin, podcasting. We have business reporters meeting with Facebook users to talk about retirement coverage. We have a Science desk that has ignited a global discussion about life and society with its #15girls project. We have a Visuals team that has redefined what it means to integrate sound and text and images to create powerful stories.

Yes, methods are changing and we have to change how we do our work. But our mission remains the same. We deliver the very finest fact-based story telling to inform and engage the public.

It's not about technology. It's about credibility and making sure our journalism into the future is as credible and trusted as it has been in the past.

This message is simply to say we have to be thoughtful about those changes. But we cannot stop.

Mike