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Published on December 1st, 2016 | by EJC

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Ahead Of NIS Amsterdam: The Power Of 360 According To RYOT

On December 13, the EJC and Google NewsLab News Impact Summit returns to Amsterdam, where we’ll be discussing empathy and engagement in the new media landscape. Jessica Lauretti will be one of the speakers there. She runs the RYOT Studio at Huffington Post, which aims to bring immersive stories to ‘Inform, Entertain, and Activate to ignite change’. We spoke to Lauretti ahead of the summit to discuss what her work entails and hear about the strengths of VR and 360-storytelling.

“I think many people are still in shock.” Like any conversation in the past two weeks, we’ve started the interview with the presidential elections. Initially this interview was scheduled for November 9 – the day that revealed to voters, audiences, journalists and pollsters a completely different new world than expected.

“People are still depressed, and angry. From the newsroom’s perspective, we have people out covering the protests now”, says Lauretti: “We’ve done other politics stories in the last couple of months.  That’s what we have been doing before, too. We covered both conventions for the Democrats and the Republicans; we sent someone to Philadelphia and Cleveland. We did fourteen videos in fourteen days.” I do the math and conclude: that’s one interactive video a day. Is that even possible?

A video that’s not a video

“What is funny about the 360 things, is that people equate them with big-scale, elaborate projects, but you can use it just as well to make short, acute productions.” In fact, Lauretti’s newsroom looks at all the same factors and criteria that traditional teams might when deciding to do a story: what about costs, people on the ground and their network and (re)sources? “Not everything has to be a big project. It’s just great to be able to use this approach everywhere and to add this perspective to the coverage.”

VR and 360 lend a layer of interactivity to this coverage that makes the reporting instantly stand out. From somebody’s timeline, for instance: you might see the same headline rehashed a few times, from different media outlets’ posts, until you scroll over a 360 piece. “You are immediately immersed in a new situation”, says Lauretti.

Becoming the story might be a sin for the traditional journalist — according to RYOT, making the audience a vital, engaged and ignited part of the story is essential to storytelling and conveying empathy. By immersing the viewer into their VR and 360-productions, they give the audience more insight (on a personal level) into difficult social issues, or stories that are too big to convey in traditional, linear coverage.

She was trained as a documentary filmmaker, a practice she says you have to let go of if you want to go into VR or 360. This type of video is not just any type of video: “The mechanisms that you would use film to drive story forward are very different in this format: there is no cinematography, no lenses, no close-up, no cuts or pacing in the editing. In many ways, it is a lot slower. You might thousands of cuts for one and a half minutes of traditional film. In VR, you can only use five to seven shots to tell the same story.”

Beyond these practicalities, Lauretti emphasizes the audience engagement that is amplified through 360 videos. They lend a special role to the viewers, who have to move their phones or screens at whatever angles they themselves choose to follow the story. They can get a much more well-rounded representation of or insight into the situation – literally. “There are no frames. Normally you are cutting almost 90 percent of the frame. So in a way the 360 is more honest, and very democratizing”, according to Lauretti. “You see everything that is going on, you open up the situation to all the information” that the viewers might be able to glean from the piece.

Rather than comparing the 360-production to linear videos, Lauretti does see a similarity with (experimental) theatre, in which a situation unfolds for the audience to experience. Similarly in verbatim theatre, that looks to ‘perform the real’(and often makes use of other media, film and even VR), the producers cannot easily cut words, characters or actions from the stage. And of course, immersive theatre productions require the audience to not be a passive bystander but to play a role in the piece, as a witness or character.

Coverage and action

The RYOT Studio typically makes one “flagship production”: an elaborate and narrative piece, presented in a multi media layout with artwork and written editorial. The production team considers several core issues as its beat, according to Lauretti. These are stories with a strong societal undertone – poverty, identity prison reform, climate change and other environmental and humanitarian issues. This was the intention of the company’s founders: two humanitarians looking for a method to connect news coverage to action. The use of innovative techn appeared as a natural development of that mission, because it brings these “real stories”, “very close to the audience member.”

haiti

Haiti after the storm. A production in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which cause severe damages at Haiti. The introduction of the piece strongly calls out its readers and viewers to consider the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the island: “The time for action is now. We can work together to ensure that the people of Haiti have what they need to survive: access to clean water, food, shelter, sanitation facilities, and hygiene supplies.” Click image to view Haiti after the storm’s page.

I ask Lauretti which story she would still like to make. She mentions Aleppo: “Think of a piece in which you, the viewer, get to walk into Aleppo. You’ll see the rubble, the damaged buildings, everything destroyed. Or you see the traces of people who have fled there, a torn-up teddybear. You kick against the rubble, you feel the weight of the broken bricks. An interactive piece like that would be different from the other pieces we’ve made on Aleppo.

It’s a format that puts the audience into somebody else’s shoes and lends them their viewpoint. Indeed, says Lauretti: “Some of the stories are so big that regular coverage cannot get them across. It is easier to make individual audience members understand the weight of such issues by focusing other individuals, to make the story resonate on a personal level. If you can do that, you’ll see these kind of productions can win hearts and minds.”

Show, don’t tell. It’s very likely the empathy will follow there, as well.

crossing

The Crossing. Reporting the refugee crisis unfolding in Greece, on the ground. For this production, RYOT Huffington Post teamed up with Susan Sarandon. “We do that sometimes”, according to Lauretti: “We try to make use of our network, celebrities with a cause, people and journalists we know on the ground, as much we can.” Click image to view The Crossing’s page.

About the Author:

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Lisa Dupuy is a freelance editor and writer for various outlets, including natgeo.nl where she focuses on wildlife crime, human interest and conflict stories. She has live-reported from several of the News Impact Summits and has previously written on verification and journalism in crisis situations. Follow on Twitter: @lisadupuy

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