Pilot: Can Immersive Storytelling Impact Viewer Empathy?

The Pilot Innovation Challenge, an initiative of the National Association of Broadcasters, “recognizes creative ideas that leverage technological advances in the production, distribution and display of engaging content.” More than 150 ideas were submitted to address the challenge question, “What is an unconventional way broadcasters and other local media could serve communities?

TV Technology recently spoke with Kathleen Marie Ryan, associate professor, College of Media, communication and Information, University of Colorado Boulder, about the project her students are working on, “Immersive Storytelling and an Ethic of Care,” which has been named a finalist in the Challenge. Winners will be announced on Nov. 13.

TV TECHNOLOGY: Please explain the project in detail. What is unconventional about it?

KATHLEEN RYAN: While i-docs, virtual reality and augmented reality offer a framework for presentation and user engagement in broadcasting and broadcast journalism, the relative newness of each platform means that practitioners still do not have a full understanding of platform effectiveness.

VR producer Zillah Watson noted, “VR news still has a poor understanding of its audience both in terms of content, content discovery and attitudes to the technology and hardware.” She may have been talking about i-docs and AR as well. Studies at Stanford University and MIT’s Open Documentary Lab have both used laboratories to test VR’s potential to generate empathy. The Open Documentary Lab uses Oculus Rift to explore how social feelings are formed; Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab explores how VR can, among other things, be applied to issues such as changing conservation behavior or encouraging empathy.

While the Guardian News dubbed AR the “future” of storytelling in 2010, it’s been more successful in the public eye via gaming platforms such as the 2016 fad Pokemon GO. One exception is Empathic Media, which worked with the Red Cross to embed AR stories about human trafficking in stop signs in Serbia. No project is currently comparing all three platforms (i-doc, VR, AR) in digital humanities projects, or is determining storytelling efficacy for users.

This project fills that void. Because of its focus on platform-specific content creation as well as experimental testing, it offers a holistic exploration of best practices. It also provides a space for users to view the stories both through web/smartphone-based technology as well as high-end headsets, allowing us to begin to understand how technologies can impact viewer understanding. It will provide valuable data not only for our larger project, but also for broadcasters as a whole.

While the larger project has identified 80 contemporary and historical photographers for inclusion, this discovery testing will focus on just five to six of the women. Their stories will be produced into three distinct platforms, with each experience lasting four to eight minutes in total. The outputs will include platform-specific stories from each of the photographers. The project will also use focus group interviews, leading to the development of best practices protocols for each platform.

TVT:What led to the development of this project and the topic of “ethic of care” in viewers?

KR: We’d argue that many journalistic stories boil down to the idea of making an audience member care about a person or an issue. This idea of care—or viewer engagement—is especially important in our short attention-span era, where emerging and legacy media are competing for viewer interest. Care implies not only engagement in the story, but a willingness to change behavior or attitudes based upon the evidence provided in the story.

We’ve had discussions within journalism at the University of Colorado about how—or if—experimentations in different storytelling platforms actually benefit viewers. A related discussion is how platforms can shape how we tell stories. Can every story be suited for every platform? This topic in particular seemed well poised to test if different platforms could enhance or hinder viewer engagement and understanding.

Part of this is because of the history of environmental photography. Photographs were used not only to document the U.S. landscape, but also to (successfully) argue for its preservation. The Sierra Club’s photos, for instance, played a large role in movements to preserve wilderness lands such as King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks in California. The images were designed to motivate viewers to action.

The project’s focus on place similarly makes it a logical test case to experiment with storytelling practices. Photographs (and stories) about a location can be digitally embedded at that location, which may not be possible in other spaces (an active war zone, for instance). Viewers can access these locations and experience the story at the site.

There is also an increased awareness of environmental dangers potentially posed by the oil and gas industry, and the financial benefits the industry can offer states and communities. As I walk through my neighborhood in Boulder County, Colo., homeowners post signs advocating for stricter environmental protections for landowners from oil and gas development. A home in a suburban development two towns over blew up this summer because of an improperly tapped natural gas well in the neighborhood. But parts of Colorado, along with North Dakota and Pennsylvania, are seeing the economic windfall caused by the energy development. It’s a tricky—and often contentious—balancing act.

Finally, the project comes at a strangely political time for artists and journalists working in environmental issues. When we first began developing this idea in 2013–2014, it was conceived of as an exploration of aesthetics, specifically in the strange sort of beauty to be found in human-scarred lands. While that is still a component of the project, due to recent actions in D.C., the interviews have taken on a newfound political currency. In 2017, even women working in relatively easy-to-digest “worshipful” images of the landscape are engaging in a type of political activism. Just as the “Sierra Club Religion” of the 1950s–1970s galvanized a community to advocate for preservation and protection of America’s wilderness spaces, so too can these contemporary photographers, through images that demonstrate a tension between the sacred and profane, have the potential to act as advocates for the nation’s public (and private) lands. This project’s timing offers a unique insight into an artistic and journalistic practice during a fraught moment in American history.

TVT:Can you explain the various digital storytelling platforms used by the team?

KR: We’re working in three different digital platforms, all based in user interactivity: web-based documentary, virtual reality and augmented reality.

Interactive storytelling offers a unique way to engage the public in journalistic narratives. As Judith Aston notes, the format allows for user engagement and participation of an almost-encyclopedic amount of data housed in a navigable virtual space, demonstrating a type of “embodied interaction.” If the analog documentary is a linear story with a pre-ordained beginning, middle and end, the interactive documentary, or i-doc, allows the user to “play” the story, navigating between ideas, people and things in a nonlinear matter. The order of the elements is less important than the stories that are being told. It also allows for full interviews and transcripts to be embedded within the larger story.

The first will be an interactive website to be viewed on laptops or smartphones. While we are still developing the exact type of i-doc formatting and story mapping we will use, initially we believe a map with highlighted communities/cities/regions may be most effective. The video will be embedded using a standard video player (HD) or a drag interface such as Vimeo 360 (360-degree video). The second platform will be immersive VR stories to viewed via Oculus Rift headsets. The final will be designed to be embedded in a map application to be viewed either on a website/smartphone at home or on a smartphone on location.

Our web-based story will use the content management system RacontR, which was behind the successful interactive documentary “Prison Valley.” The CMS allows for linkages to other stories and story elements (behind the scenes footage, raw interviews, PDFs of documents) to be embedded within individual videos. The platform then allows for the creator to download the source code and place it on an individual website, or host it within the Racontr platform. The advantage is that it requires little high-end coding (it’s designed on a drag-and-drop model). We plan on embedding it within a hosted website.

We’re planning on using Oculus Rift headsets as a way to “house” our VR stories. Because of the experimental design of this phase of the project, we don’t plan on offering an online home for the VR pieces; we’re more interested in learning how audiences react to the storytelling experiment. We’re of the belief that this focus offers more potential benefits to broadcasters. Additionally, it will help us to shape the project as it moves into phases 2 and 3 of development.

Our AR stories will be housed using Google Maps. CU Boulder has a close relationship with the Google News Lab (we’re one of its university partners), and we’re using their expertise to determine how to best “place” stories virtually in a mapped world. We believe that augmented reality, in particular, holds great promise for news organizations, because of how it ties a story to a specific place.

TVT:Tell us about the female photographers involved. Did gender play a role in this project?

KR: We’ll be telling the stories of five to six contemporary photographers. All but Renae Carter Mitchell have already committed to the project and been interviewed.

Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, author and educator, whose photographs and videos have been exhibited at more than 100 international venues including the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Portland Art Museum, and Dublin Contemporary. She is the author of two monographs “Purple Hearts—Back from Iraq,” portraits and interviews with wounded American veterans; and “Homeland,” which explores the militarization of American life post-September 11. She’s received awards from the World Press Photo Foundation, Pictures of the Year International, the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Open Society Foundation. She is the 2016 Aftermath Project grant winner and the 2017 Susan Tifft fellow at the Center for Documentary studies at Duke University. She is a member of NOOR images and an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she directs the photography program. She lives in her hometown of New York City.

Sarah Christianson grew up on a four-generation family farm in the heart of eastern North Dakota's Red River Valley (an hour north of Fargo). Immersed in that vast expanse of the Great Plains, she developed a strong affinity for its landscape. This connection to place has had a profound effect on her work: despite moving to San Francisco in 2009, she continues to document the subtleties and nuances of the Midwestern landscape and experience through long-term projects. She earned an MFA in photography from the University of Minnesota. Her current project, “When the Landscape is Quiet Again,” examines the oil boom occurring in western North Dakota.

Terry Evans specializes in landscapes that capture the people and places of the Midwest. In “Fractured: North Dakota’s Oil Boom,” she traveled to Western North Dakota to see how the boom cycle of natural gas extraction was changing the shape of the prairie. She says she never intended to photograph the prairie, but finds within the land echoes of classical art. Evans has a BFA in painting from the University of Kansas, and her work is collected by museums internationally. She lives in Chicago.

Renae Cartier Mitchell is a freelance photographer based in North Dakota. She grew up in the western part of the state and currently lives in Fargo. She is a contracted photographer for the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

Martha Rial’s photographs have received international acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize for work documenting the lives of Burundian and Rwandan survivors of the 1994 genocide. She is a photojournalist specializing in documentary, editorial and portrait photography. Her work can be found in the permanent collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art, BNY Mellon and the Newseum in Washington D.C., and has earned the Scripps Howard Foundation Award for Photojournalism, a National Headliner Award and the Distinguished Visual Award from the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors. She is a graduate of Ohio University's School of Visual Communication.

Victoria Sambunaris received her MFA from Yale University in 1999. Each year, she structures her life around a photographic journey crossing the American landscape. Her most recent project has been working in South Texas photographing the intersection of geology, industry and culture encompassing the petro/chemical and shipping industries situated around the Gulf Coast. Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Lannan Foundation. Radius Books published her first monograph “Taxonomy of a Landscape.” She is based in New York’s Hudson River Valley.

One of the questions we’ve asked each woman is [whether or not] there is a female ‘eye’ in landscape photography.” It’s a difficult question to answer. Landscape photography historically has been considered a male domain, which historian Naomi Rosenblum says “presupposed a definition of landscape photography limited to images that capture sublime grandeur.” That’s not to say women weren’t photographing the land, but rather that their images weren’t considered to be part of the larger “landscape photography” movement. Images close to home or of human interactions with the land tend to not fall into the traditional “landscape” tradition.

But as the recent kerfuffle surrounding Nikon’s selection of 32 male photographers to test-drive (and promote) a new camera illustrates, photography is a male-dominated industry. The New York Times reported that even though women make up the majority of students in collegiate journalism programs (undergrad and graduate), “about 15 percent of the entries to the prestigious World Press Photo awards... and the vast majority of photos in many major publications’ collections of the most significant images of 2016 overwhelmingly carried male photographer’s credits—ranging between 80 and 100 percent.”

As the women who’ve spoken to me for this project have said, they don’t often get the same sort of “important” assignments, or get the same sort of recognition for their work, that their male colleagues do. This project seeks to remedy this oversight.

TVT:How do you see this experiment impacting the broadcasting professional?

KR: Broadcasters know about the importance of experimenting with new “toys” and emerging technology. And our discussions with the Public News Service (our industry partner) indicate there is an interest by broadcasters to present innovative content to viewers. But in the case of virtual and augmented reality, there isn’t a lot of research about how users react to and engage with the specific platforms. It’s not as simple as plopping a broadcast-ready story into a platform and hope the viewers will come. If an organization doesn’t have the reach (or financial wherewithal) of the New York Times, they may not have the ability to experiment with these sorts of platforms without knowing how, or even if, viewers will view the stories.

This is where this project comes in. We hope to develop a template of best practices for storytelling in these emerging platforms.

The answers will come through focus groups in three locations connected to the project (Central Pennsylvania, Western North Dakota, Colorado Front Range) to test the efficacy of the platforms. The i-doc and VR focus group participants will be asked to view stories either through a computer-based website or via VR headsets; groups will be set up in the three locations. The AR participants will be taken to a location where the story is embedded to explore the story on site (one group in western North Dakota, one group in the Pittsburgh area, and one group in Bradford County, PA).

For each group, we have a pre-exposure questionnaire that will establish a baseline of their environmental attitudes. Once the various groups have experienced the content, they will take another brief post-exposure questionnaire, and then participate in focus group discussions of 60–90 minutes to talk about what they learned from the content and how they feel about the issues discussed in the stories, as well as their orientation to the environment itself. We will be looking for changes in their sense of care for the environment, as well as any differences from one group to another based on the type of story format viewed. The focus groups will be recruited using contacts at local universities in each state and using snowball sampling.

While this discovery project isn’t designed to develop external viewer engagement, the i-doc and AR components will be published on public websites and apps; anyone with access to the site or app could feasibly look at the project. We will use some social media strategies (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) to experiment with protocols, including integrating the work into a class offered at the University of Colorado in social media storytelling. We also plan to work closely with PNS (both national and with local producers) in both storytelling and in framing focus group testing.

TVT:Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about the project?

KR: Because of the project's focus on platform-specific content creation as well as experimental testing, it offers a holistic exploration of best practices. It also provides space for users to view the stories both through web/smartphone/headset-based technology as well as high-end headsets, allowing us to begin to understand how technologies can impact viewer understanding. It will provide valuable data not only for our larger project, but also for journalists and broadcasters as a whole.

Logistically, Media in the Public Interest provides news coverage in 36 states, including Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Colorado, through its partnership with Public News Service. Through our partnership, we hope to be able to share the process of the story (as well as story elements), recruit for focus group participants, and develop questions for focus group participants that can best help broadcasters.