VR and Journalistic Standards

The other weekend our Sunday New York Times arrived with something extra. Attached to the usual plastic bag was a cardboard box from Google with some Velcro tabs. Once unfolded, and with an iPhone inserted, it became a virtual reality viewer. (Yes, you are reading that correctly: I went from cardboard box to virtual reality in the same sentence.) Obviously, a new age is upon us.

The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a thoughtful piece discussing the new standards for news gathering that are necessary for virtual reality reporting. (Yes, you are reading that correctly: I just wrote “virtual reality reporting” and meant for you to take it seriously.)

The VR camera sees in 360 degrees, so there’s pretty much no way that you can direct a scene and shoot it at the time time. You have to tell your subjects what to do and then get out of the way. The technical demands of the medium mean that you have to get a lot more Hollywood than the “fly on the wall” technique that has long defined documentary and news filmmaking.

Reading Sullivan’s piece in the Times was encouraging. It’s good to know that someone is thinking about standards in this time during which most audiences are not concerned with how a story was acquired, how the facts of the world got encoded on a drive, or even if there were facts involved at all.

Everyone is a creator now, and (hat tip to Seth Godin) we are all artists. That means that the rules are not just bent, they are thrown away. What is news gathering? What can we call journalism now? Is what Gawker does journalism? Is BuzzFeed publishing journalism? Listicles are certainly not journalism, nor is most so-called data journalism, but the reporting coming from Mike Giglio in Syria, Buzzfeed’s correspondent there, certainly is journalism.

When I worked at NBC, there was a rule about shooting B-roll. B -roll is the footage that shows a place, or process, or person walking down the hall. The rule was simple: Don’t ask anyone to do anything that they wouldn’t normally do. We could retake things if we missed something the first time, but only if there was a technical problem. That means that if a truck drove by during your best take, you could ask someone to say something again. But if someone started crying and the truck drove by, you were sunk. You couldn’t ask anybody to cry again or cry harder, or turn toward the camera to better catch the tracks of their tears. It wasn’t about acting. It was about collecting real moments. There was a bracing and refreshing moral imperative to it.

Reality TV pretty much destroyed those moral fine points. In that media ecosystem, you could certainly ask someone to cry, and cry again, and cry harder until you got the take you wanted. You could do a reverse shot, or an alternate take, where you asked someone to get really angry, and again, and again if necessary, if you didn’t get it the first time. There are no real moments. The audience wasn’t concerned about capturing the world on a hard drive or flash drive.

And yet …

Here we are in the age of a cardboard box being delivered that opens up a world of stateless children caught in war. You walk around on a rooftop, you paddle in a boat. You are there, and it’s eerie, powerful and strange. It feels really good to see the New York Times stewing and fretting about how VR news gathering should be produced. Self-doubt and exploration come across as powerful in this context, particularly in an American media-industrial complex that has become drunk on power, arrogant, and fairly stupid. Self-examination among media makers is a wonderful thing, particularly at this new frontier.