In my mind, it is very difficult to disentangle documentaries from journalism when immersive reality is involved. Both mediums seek to inform the viewer on the topic, perhaps with some cutting insights. Perhaps it is its scope; documentaries provide a broad overview with diversions of deep insight, while journalism is a cutting-edge report on what is happening in the world. Yet when VR is used to provide more insights into a story – like, say, solitary confinement in the Guardian’s short film  – then the lines blur.

These questions were explored and address in an event late last week in London. On the 7 September I went to the Expanded Realities Symposium, organised by Digital Catapult and the Open City Documentary Festival. There were a few sessions, but the one I popped into was the Future of Journalism, with representatives from Reuters, the Guardian and the New York Times. I enthusiastically applaud the organisers for having an all-female panel of powerhouse filmmakers.

What struck me was their enthusiasm and interest in the expanding area. All of them recognised that the technique is young, innovative and very exciting. All are exploring further avenues of immersive journalism, with the Guardian being financed by Google to produce 12 short films after their success of 6×9. News articles can inform, while immersive experiences can attached an emotional context which provides additional depth to the narrative.

Curiously, many have asserted that this is still very much the Wild West of trying new techniques, with nothing set in stone for industry practices. One panelist pointed out that the first ever TV show was effectively a radio interview, with several people chatting on the table. As TV was new, the creators imported what they knew of radio and applied it to the new visual medium. The same is happening with 360 / VR, where producers are opting for 180 degree experiences while the action is directly in front of the viewer. This is something I agree with.

It is also curious that the New York Times ‘doesn’t know what it should be used for, at least not yet.’ The implication is that they are exploring immersive journalism while keeping an eye for applications in the future.

Ultimately, all the panelists agreed that it will take time for immersive journalism to unfold. Using mobile devices in cardboard headsets can be finicky, and viewing content is not a frictionless experience. As consumers adopt more to the technology, the industry can be set to expand and develop.


  • Marcelle Hopkins – NY Times
  • Anetta Jones – formerly of the Guardian
  • Zillah Watson – BBC R&D

Tom Ffiske
Twitter: @TomFfiske
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