A news medium in which you are there

“Gone Gitmo” is set inside a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison.

USC Annenberg School for Communication Journalism senior research fellow Nonny de la Peña has been gaining attention for her work developing immersive journalism, including the publishing of an introductory paper in Presence, a journal published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The paper explores current approaches to the field that de la Peña is pioneering and the potential for building a fundamentally different way of experiencing the news. Immersive journalism, she noted, offers a way to understand the news “that is otherwise impossible, without really being there.”

Immersive journalism is the use of virtual reality and 3-D environments, built in a gaming platform, to convey the sights, sounds and feelings of news. De la Peña’s most prominent project is “Gone Gitmo,” set inside a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison and built in Second Life, a 3-D virtual world. The virtually-recreated experience is a unique way for a reader or viewer to get “first-person” experiences of the events described in news stories. The project was built with former USC visiting professor Peggy Weil.

“Cap Trade,” another Second Life prototype, is a news report on the carbon market that sends participants on a journey to follow the money so they can better understand the complexities and human consequences of trading carbon credits.

Participants can enter the stories as themselves, as visitors gaining firsthand access to a virtual version of the location of the story – or as a character depicted in the story. In this way, they can have a different level of understanding from reading a print story or watching audiovisual material, de la Peña said.

“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,” she wrote.

Besides prototyping immersive stories, de la Peña’s goal is to discover and create best practices for a largely unexplored field.

“There is an issue here when you have virtual bodies – is it too subjective? How do you retain objectivity?” she said. “Another issue is: We have a good idea of how to edit a good journalistic text piece or TV news piece. But how do you edit an immersive journalism story? You have to take pieces out and leave pieces in. There are always editorial decisions. What are the best practices for doing it in a virtual world?”

It’s crucial for journalism to delve into immersive storytelling, de la Peña said, because of its potential to reach a huge, untapped audience.

“How many kids are gaming? All of them. This is not a unique batch of individuals. It’s a growing audience. This has become a critical place where we can still tell news stories. We’d be really remiss not to consider these gaming platforms when they’re nascent and think about the best ways to work in these spaces,” she said, comparing its development to the emergence of radio and television.

“We’re looking at a new medium that’s here to stay, and we need to be thinking about how to use it,” she said.

De la Peña was lead author on the paper, which was co-written by Weil, Joan Llobera, Elias Giannopoulos, Ausiàs Pomés, Bernhard Spanlang, Doron Friedman, Maria V. Sanchez-Vives and Mel Slater.