Dangerous Documentaries and Online Journalism

by Andrew Lih
Nonny de la Pena

Nonny de la Peña, fellow at USC School of Cinematic Arts and founder of immersive journalism VR company Emblematic Group, speaks at the 2015 ISOJ on the University of Texas-Austin campus, Apr. 18, 2015. Mengwen Cao/Knight Center

The insights of CMSI’s Dangerous Documentaries project connected with a number of news projects at the International Symposium on Online Journalismat the University of Texas this year, showing the risks visual storytellers are taking in reporting important societal issues and the emerging challenges in the new genre of immersive documentary making.

Safety and Security Risks

VICE has become one of the most engaging outlets for the online video generation, bringing international “news doc” stories from danger zones that escape notice in mainstream journalism. At the conference, Drake Martinet, global head of platform, described the challenge of covering Ukraine as VICE’s first major challenge in its first year of operation. Since making it their flagship beat, they’ve had over 100 dispatches from the Ukrainian conflict zone that, in their edgy style, they’ve dubbedRussian Roulette.

Dangerous Docs details the types of challenges VICE faces in these situations by providing a comprehensive resource list on physical and mental safety during reporting. As noted in the report, the logistical support, training and production insurance associated with danger zone operation is often inadequate for those new to this style of reporting. The importance of hostile environment training was apparent the same month, when VICE producer Simon Otrovsky was beaten and detained for four days by pro-Russian separatists before being released on the streets of Sloviansk. Not every journalist in these situations can count on the backing of a large media organizations, showing the need for a project like Dangerous Docs to lay out the risks and remedies for freelancers and independent productions for the future.

Out of Southeast Asia, Malaysiakini has long been recognized as an independent online publisher in Malaysia that has pushed for government reform and change. Since its inception, it has had to take steps that Dangerous Docs covers in an entire section on Safety and Security — to minimize risk while in the field and to keep information secure to protect themselves and their subjects. As a pure online publisher, Malaysiakini established itself in 1999 by working around rules that strictly regulated news outlets in a country effectively controlled by one party.

The site runs a video site KiniTV.com, that has covered protests and controversial public affairs issues through video reports and documentaries in three different languages – English, Malay and Chinese. Even while operating under difficult laws relating to “internal security” and “security offenses,” their reporting proved to be so effective that the government seized their computer servers in 2003.  At the conference, Chia Ting Ting, head of advertising and digital marketing, described the challenges in engaging audiences under these circumstances, and how they have succeeded despite part government actions against their work. The confiscation of Malaysiakini’s hardware and the government’s intimidation tactics highlights the enormous risks in protecting the privacy and identity of sources.

When addressing these privacy measures, Dangerous Docs notes, the state of encryptionsystems for journalists is frustrating and technically challenging to implement – “Even makers supported by large organizations find that their organizations do not support or train for use of encryption, and indeed may have massively insecure websites or mobile apps.” The question of information security and securing work-in-progress against confiscation or government surveillance is key for continued operation and creating trust with sources. The resource list onPrivacy and Information Security in the report provides a valuable rundown of the best practices currently in place, from experts such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Smear Campaigns

Another news operation at the conference showed the need for the Dangerous Docs project’s guidance on public relations strategy as it faced the challenge of large-scale smear campaigns and finding like-minded partner organizations to fulfill its mission. MeydanTV, formed by a group of Azerbaijani video journalists, was created to report stories the Azerbaijan government doesn’t want covered. As one of the few independent media organizations in the country, its operations in the capital of Baku were shut down in December 2014. Now working from Berlin, MeydanTV’s staff had to face accusations of being spies funded by the EU and the United States to work against the government. As Dangerous Docs noted, news organizations don’t just produce news — public relations needs to be part of the planning for any film maker speaking truth to power. They have had to distribute their video news stories, counter government smear campaigns and use social media to work with multiple outlets in promoting their work.

Immersive Storyteling

Perhaps the most exciting glimpse into the future was with Nonny De La Peña’s virtual realitySyria Project.  As interactive documentary is no longer vaporware and exist here and now, how do the timeless questions raised in Dangerous Docs map onto a virtual reality storytelling environment? How is the “balancing act” between art of filmmaking and the practice journalism affected by the emergence of virtual reality? As a fellow at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and widely seen as the pioneer in immersive journalism, De La Peña was part of a showcase of virtual reality-based storytelling being displayed at the conference that included Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Project Syria’s large VR space. Set up in a 150 square foot space with IR beacons and a VR headset, De La Peña’s team had attendees lined up to experience her latest Project Syria simulation, which puts participants in the middle of a Middle Eastern town just before chaos reigns.

After putting on the headset that tracks head movement in free space, you’re standing on the dusty streets of a small town in Syria. In your VR display, you see clusters of men chatting on the road, while children run around playing. You’re not sure what to do as you walk around the VR space, joining a circle of locals, trying to get your bearings in the run down village. About 20 seconds into the simulation, a loud boom fills your headphones. Your nerves jump. You feel your heart rate soar. Everything fills with dust and smoke. You try to figure out where dozens of people are running to or from. Children are scattering around, and you’re lost, as you can barely see six feet in front of you. You have just experienced what a terrorist attack feels like, in first person. This is a documentary with user agency. You have free control of where to look and walk, yet, you’re lost. Your senses are completely filled as you realize running in a random direction is the only choice to make. It’s hard to imagine hearing about a terrorist attack ever again without recalling this spine-rattling simulation.

With this one demonstration, participants experienced the future of immersive journalism and interactive documentary.  Sensory experiences like Project Syria completely transform one’s emotional ties with the subject, and creates a deeper connection with world events. As storytellers and journalists, it brings up fascinating questions about storytelling, advocacy and experiential knowledge. What is the line between accuracy in storytelling and emotional exploitation? What does fairness and transparency look like in this medium? How does one effectively perform field capture accurately and faithfully in danger zones for a virtual reality story? This brings in a third dimension to making documentaries, that adds further complexity to the film-journalism dialogue in Dangerous Docs.

The project notes that there is already tension in documentary of representative sources vs compelling characters and the craft “sliding too far into fiction.” These questions only get more complicated when talking about synthesis and simulation, where the story is based on visual news gathering but experienced in the virtual reality domain.

As an accomplished journalist and documentary maker herself, De La Peña is careful and transparent about the process of image capture and modeling her 3D virtual characters. But as more game designers and technical experts from the fictional film domain become more involved with immersive nonfiction, the standards and practices as noted in Dangerous Docs will become even more prominent. The report notes the need to respect the audience today when using music or other supplemental techniques to further the story.  Extending these ethical questions about the nature of 3D capture, modeling and simulation in virtual reality will be crucial. With CMSI’s track record, I fully expect it to be at the forefront in discussing these issues.

For over a decade, ISOJ has been an influential annual conference that provides a thoughtful gathering of academics and professionals for pushing the the frontiers of journalism. It was inspiring to see Dangerous Docs so relevant to the front lines of international reporting and the cutting edge of immersive journalism.


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