The news of the future

The problem of veracity and realism in digital graphics has challenged Web editors and designers since the outset of online journalism. Where do we draw the line between fact and fantasy? How much latitude can we give the audience to create its own realities?

One answer has been to define Virtual Reality and create immersive applications that meet journalists’ notions of epistemology – the grounding of knowledge in verifiable facts and information. In contrast to artists, online journalists do not put a high value on illusion. We are not in the deception business. Nor are we gamers.

On the other hand, digital technology gives online journalists a chance to experiment with multisensory presentations, and we have long favored giving the audience opportunities to participate in storytelling. Harking back to MSNBC’s baggage checking exercise and other early versions of hypothetical scenarios, we have given the audience increasing latitude to explore the possibilities of digital landscapes from a first-person point of view.

Over the last several years, more effort has been put into elaborate calculators, civic games and hypothetical scenarios. The goal has been to use the immersive techniques of gamers “as an amplifier of thought,” to use the phrase of one design theorist, Brenda Laurel. For journalists, this requires creating a new vocabulary, a new metalanguage. Another theorist, art historian Jonathan Crary, describes it as “a radically different practice about the possibility of presence within perception.” To the print newsroom, it may seem more like Web journalists playing with dangerous toys.

A fresh example of where to draw the line in using Virtual Reality to tell the news has been created by the National Geographic in its documentary “Six Degrees.” It is based on a book, has a Web version, appeared in mid-February on cable and satellite TV and is set to be released in IMAX theaters in a 3-D version.

Each of us will come away from seeing the various versions of “Six Degrees” with our own opinions. But here, for the sake of discussion, and in no particular order, are my thoughts about a high-minded and expensive effort to put the audience into a hypothetical alternative world of global climate change. What do we see?

  • Mixed realities to create an appearance of the real
  • A topic that is large and complex has been reduced to the representation of a natural force, the rise in temperature due to greenhouse gas emissions
  • A point of view from outer space – a metaphor of the space voyager looking down on Earth
  • The application opens with the expectation that something will happen – the beginning of a plot – with an ominous sound reminiscent of the opening of “Jaws.”
  • The presentation Is not linear but has a design structure – the possible perspectives are not infinite
  • The ‘AS IF’ possibilities have been limited for the purposes of logical and affective clarity
  • It purposefully dissolves fixed limits on both time and space
  • It creates an ephemeral reality with an ontology that is founded on the process of global warming
  • The images are transient and malleable – they play upon memories and reinforce our experience (Memories of camping vs. civilization being reduced to tents on the Arctic Circle.)
  • The premise assumes shared information and a common ground – this is not a debate over whether human activities have provoked global climate change
  • It investigates problems but offers no solutions
  • The interface both enables and represents – it emphasizes action, raises alarms
  • The representations involve direct sensing and cognition (sounds of whale songs, melting ice, violent crowds)
  • Scenes are selected, arranged and represented so as to both intensify emotion and condense time (But are they hokey, especially the newscasts?)
  • The design has implicit restraints, but they arise naturally from our growing knowledge of the context
  • The explicit restraints – the temperature scale and Lighthouse Buttons – frame our actions
  • The multisensory experience creates empathy – we vicariously experience what the characters are experiencing
  • The overall impact is to give us a vision that changes our beliefs – our ways of doing things must change (or else…)
  • The application is built upon the storage and retrieval of information in a variety of media types to provide an organic experience that involves the whole sensorium.

    For what it’s worth, my favorite scene is the sidewalk café in Paris (Degree Four). It is reminiscent of “Last Year at Marienbad.”

  • About Larry Pryor

    I am an associate professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism and am a former editor of OJR. I left online journalism to work full-time at teaching environmental journalism. I had been an environment writer at the Los Angeles Times before getting into new media.
    I'm attempting to combine my work in visual journalism with environmental coverage. Digital models can help us connect data points into more understandable patterns. Mash-ups are great tools.