Immersive journalism’ is the production of news in a form in which people can gain first person experiences of the events or situation described in news stories. Well-crafted journalism always aims to elicit a connection between the audience and the news story. Creating that connection via different kinds of ‘immersion’ has long been considered ideal. Describing her reporting during World War II, reporter Martha Gellhorn (Gellhorn 1994) called it ‘The view from the ground’. Writer George Plimpton (Plimpton 2003) actually joined the Detroit Lions American football team in order to give his readers the most intimate sense of playing in this team. Television news correspondent Walter Cronkite made a series of documentaries recreating historical events where he would offer a brief introduction before an announcer would give the date and the event, proclaiming, ‘You Are There!’ More recently, attempts to combine audio, video and photographs on the Internet have created what some journalists call ‘immersive storytelling.’ As technology editor at MSNBC, Jonathan Dube, said that he believes this can bring the reader or viewer ‘closer to the truth’ (Willis 2003).
The fundamental idea of immersive journalism is to allow the participant to actually enter a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story. The participant will be typically represented in the form of a digital avatar – an animated 3D digital representation of the participant, and see the world from the first-person perspective of that avatar. In an immersive system such as a Cave (Neira, Sandin et al. 1992) the person may see their own real body, and their avatar only through shadows and reflections in virtual objects in the environment, though other online people could also see the avatar directly. In a system such as a head-tracked head-mounted-display (HMD) the person will see their avatar substituting their own body from a first-person point of view. Ideally, depending on the extent of body tracking, the movements of the virtual body will match those of the movements on the person’s real body.
The participant can also enter the story in one of several forms: as oneself, a visitor gaining first-hand access to a virtual version of the location where the story is occurring, or through the perspective of a character depicted in the news story. Whether visiting the space as oneself or as a subject in the narrative, the participant is afforded unprecedented access to the sights and sounds, and possibly, the feelings and emotions that accompany the news.
Immersive journalism is a novel way to utilize gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories.
Visual and audio primary source material from the physical world reinforce the concept that participants are experiencing a nonfiction story, with the video, sounds or photographs acting on the narrative. For example, video that triggers at key points in the virtual landscape remind a participant that the computer generated environment is grounded in the physical world. Scripted events that create a first person interaction with the reportage can also help create a feeling of “being there.” Also, participants can query or interact with the elements around them to learn more about the details or context of the news story.
Immersive journalism is distinct from news games in that news games embrace gaming protocols. The player undertakes a task or pursues a goal, voluntarily constrained by agreed upon rules, and must take action to advance position. Progress is often measured by indicators such as levels or points. In contrast, a participant in immersive journalism isn’t playing a game but is put into an experience where she is participating and affected by events but may or may not have agency to change a situation. Immersive journalism also parallels a news narrative playing out in the physical world much like a piece in a newspaper or segment on television and while one might experience the story from different starting points, the story itself should not shift.