VR headset
Credit: Image by Maurizio Pesce on Flickr. Some rights reserved. 
News organisations such as ABC News, Sky News, The New York Times and Vice News have all started experimenting with virtual reality, but little research has been done to discover what production and delivery methods work best with the audience, and what can be done to improve stories viewed through VR headsets.

Sarah Jones, a former television reporter and current academic at Coventry University, presented her findings from recent research undertaken into the role that 360-degree video can play within journalism. 

Speaking at the 2016 VR UK Festival in London today, Jones said that due to the nature of virtual reality, everyone views and experience the content in different ways.

This is challenging journalists to produce immersive stories whilst having no exact idea of how the audience will engage with it.

"No one watches it in the same way," Jones said.

"Each time you give someone a VR headset, you see that picture of everyone's faces going 'oh wow' – that happens all the time, but you also get everybody exploring the stories in different ways."

Journalists are now left wondering how to best tell a story using this new medium, having to consider a range of factors that may result in breaking all previously established and practised conventions.

"Traditional journalism is really easy.

"You know what to say, how to put it together, how to illustrate it, and there is this clear structure and linear narrative.

"You're starting with the best shot, you've got some killer soundbites, a piece to camera and a few graphics – but now we need to think about how we tell a story in 360 degrees."

Although there has been a range of 360-degree videos produced by news organisations in the last 12 months, very little research has been done into what works, and what doesn't.

Jones chose to gather all the immersive VR news content created last year using 360-degree video and analyse the similarities and differences between the stories, before gathering feedback on them from a focus group of 18 to 35-year-olds.

The 12 videos that Jones used for her study – including Vice News' Millions March NYC, The New York Times' Vigila in Paris and Sky News' Migrant Crisis – were broken down into three different categories according to subject, length and narrative.

Similarities and differences in 360-degree storytelling

Jones found the videos were similar to each other, in that they focused on an ongoing story where the events weren't going to change dramatically, allowing journalists the time to film and stitch the footage together. 

"It takes time to produce good content, and it has to be relevant by the time it is released," Jones said.

The average length of the films also differed dramatically to traditional news, anywhere between six minutes and 39 seconds.

"There is obviously a limit to how long you could put on a VR headset when viewing 360-degree films, and that is usually 10 minutes," she said.

"In a traditional news story, particulary for an online audience, you're looking at a story duration of between one a half and two minutes, but VR content needs to last longer as the user is looking around and needs more time.

"So the average duration is about 20 to 30 seconds, rather than the three second shot you would have in television news – you need longer to absorb the story and look around and engage – it is a completely different scenario."

Finally, Jones found that traditional news broadcasters, such as ABC and Sky News, stuck with "comfortable", reporter-led narratives, whereas other outlets experimented more with character-led stories.

"Reporter-led narratives are less of a jump into a new world," she explained.

But when filming in 360-degree mode, news organisations still had to take new considerations into account, such as which camera to look in for pieces to camera when using multiple GoPro lenses, whether the camera should be moving or not, and how best to position the rig at the scene.

"Only Vice's Millions March had the camera moving," said Jones.

"Inside North Korea and Seeking Home both tried to merge normal footage with 360 footage... which was quite awkward as it distacts from the immersive nature of the film."

Character-led narratives were typically found to have one to three characters, with less scenes than reporter-led stories, and including backgound music and titles.

"People don't often like titles, as it breaks away from that immersive nature of the story, but this is a challenge because it is really important for journalists to be able to contextualise what is going on and give people extra information."

Focus group reactions to 360-degree video

Having looked at the differences and similarities between the videos, Jones asked her focus group of young people to tell her what they though about various aspects.

"We need to be building immersive journalistic content to reach the younger audience, which is traditionally disengaged with news and traditional news formats.

"This is a way to leap into that market and reach that audience," said Jones.

Using samples of the 12 films she collected, students used a variety of headsets (all of which worked with a mobile phone) to evaluate how the footage worked as a piece of journalism, concluding on five main points:

The reporter's presence was distracting

Although some members of the focus group preferred the reporter-led narratives to the character-led ones, they found the physical presence of the reporters to be distracting and restrictive.

"Participants couldn't see the point of having a reporter in the shot," Jones explained, "and felt they couldn't explore as much when they were being guided for what to look at – they were not as free."

"This is interesting because I've always felt that there was this barrier within traditional television news which could be broken down with immersive 360-degree filming.

"But now I've found that if you've got the reporter there, they takes the place of the screen and become that barrier between you and what you are watching."

Feedback also found that character-led stories were far more engaging overall, allowing the audience to connect directly with the characters in the story. 

Empathy did not increase
Jones found that whilst wearing the headsets, participants felt involved in the stories they were watching, but didn't feel any more empathy than expected.

"I'm still a bit more divided on this, and it needs more research. We talk about it being this ultimate empathy machine, and yet the results aren't backing that up at the moment," she said.

There are no distractions

"There is no room for mutitasking when you are using a VR headset, because you have the audience's focus all the time," Jones explained.

A participant found that "there is no possibility of distractions like there is when you are watching the news. I can't play on my tablet or phone whilst occasionally glancing up at the screen".

So for capturing the audience's attention, VR is a useful tool within journalism.

"There is often a sense of disconnection that is caused by the television screen because you are doing other things, but if you are immersed in the headset, there is no room for you to do that," Jones said.

Personal space is invaded

Surprisingly, members of the group said the only part they "really don't appreciate" is the fact that the characters in the stories felt visually close and were invading their personal space.

"It made them feel uncomfortable," said Jones.

"It made them want to take off their headset when people were passing by very closely – particulary in situations such as a protest, where you've got people really close to you.

"People didn't like that. That is really interesting to me, because I thought that's what people would enjoy, so that is something we need to be thinking about."

'FOMO' – the fear of missing out

"Participants continuously felt like they were going to miss something important, a piece of the action," said Jones.

"Usually you watch the news on television once and that is it. But this is the kind of content that we want to watch repeatedly and make sure we have seen everything – which, of course, raises other questions about its place within journalism."

The results from this research flagged up some important points to take into consideration when producing 360-degree video content for journalism, but highlighted that we still don't have all the answers.

"I thought they would all put their hands up and say 'this is brilliant, we all want to be immersive journalists now, this is the way to go', but some of them were still very unsure about where the market is going, and if we can make the improvements needed."

Jones believes that although the platform isn't going to immediately capture everybody, it is a way to engage those switched off from news in a different way.

"The question of whether 360-degree filmmaking is a gimmick for journalism remains.

"The worry at the moment is that we have a great potential tool, but if it is not done properly, it could be really detrimental, so studies need to be done to see what is working and what people want," Jone said.

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