Frontline Asks: What Are Journalists Allowed to Do With Virtual Reality?

The Knight Foundation has given the series a $580,000 grant to develop virtual reality documentaries and create standards for the medium.

Another familiar name from the traditional journalism industry is catching the virtual reality bug. On Thursday, the Knight Foundation said it was giving a $580,000 grant to the PBS documentary series Frontline to make virtual reality films and to develop standards for headset-based reporting. 

Over the next 18 months, Frontline will work with Nonny de la Peña’s Emblematic Group to make three virtual reality documentaries. Both organizations have already done some work in the new medium. Last year, Frontline aired its first VR film, about ebola in West Africa. De la Peña is one of the pioneers of VR-based documentary work. In 2012, she premiered a virtual reality film at the Sundance Film Festival about a man who went into diabetic shock at a Los Angeles food bank, and she has given similar treatment to stories about a Mexican migrant who was killed by U.S. border patrol agents and about a rocket attack on a street corner in Syria. At next year's Sundance, de la Peña is premiering two films, one putting the audience in the role of a domestic violence victim, and the other asking them to walk into a Planned Parenthood while being harangued by digital anti-abortion protesters. 

The first virtual reality headsets designed for commercial release are starting to hit the market, and while most people expect video games to be the primary form of content, journalism organizations are being increasingly aggressive about experimenting. Vice began working on virtual reality broadcasts in 2014. The New York Times recently sent Google’s inexpensive Cardboard headsets, which let people use their smartphones to watch virtual reality, to print subscribers. The Times sees virtual reality not only as a promising storytelling tool, but also as a new source of advertising revenue. The company has paired with General Electric and BMW's Mini to make branded content for Cardboard. In October, Mark Thompson, the Times's chief executive, said he expected that it would begin making significant advertising revenue from virtual reality immediately. 

Photo illustration: Jeremy Allen/Bloomberg Business; product: Google via Bloomberg

Raney Aronson-Rath, the executive producer for Frontline, says she isn’t really thinking about a real business model for virtual reality in the near future. There are still plenty of challenges to work out in making journalism that works. In February, Frontline plans to release its next project, a film based around four scenes shot in South Sudan. The program has already been delayed, and Aronson-Rath acknowledges that resources are an issue for VR films. “Post-production is a process that will take us extra time,” she said. “We definitely needed extra help to do these films.” 

There are still open questions about how most people will watch VR documentaries. Smartphone-based systems such as Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR are available now but limited technically. There's some debate about whether videos like the Times's should count as virtual reality. More sophisticated headsets from Facebook's Oculus VR, Sony, and HTC are expected to be released next year. Aronson-Rath also holds high hopes for so-called spherical video on such platforms as Facebook. These are versions of virtual reality films that can be watched without a headset, which should widen their appeal significantly.

Then there’s the question of what journalists are allowed to do in their VR films. Shooting a 360-degree movie is a significantly harder task than making a standard linear film, and Aronson-Rath says Frontline is grappling with how to construct narratives and edit footage in a way that holds up to its standards. In Sudan, the filmmakers ran into problems when it came to mixing footage they’d gathered in two dimensions with 3D visuals.  

Aronson-Rath and de la Peña have very different views on where the ethical lines lay. Frontline wouldn’t stage a scene in virtual reality any more than it could stage a scene in a documentary, said Aronson-Rath. “There are a lot of things we could do technologically that we wouldn’t support journalistically,” she said.

But de la Peña's craft is pretty much all staging. Instead of filming things as they happen, she gathers audio, does interviews, and rebuilds a scene that viewers can experience as though they were there when it happened. In some cases, she uses the kind of composite scenes that are sometimes frowned on as a tactic of journalists and biographers. The Planned Parenthood scene she shows, for example, pulls audio from protests around the country.

At other times, there is no exact parallel to other forms of documentary. For instance, when de la Peña interviewed an eyewitness to a police killing for one of her films, she had the woman wear a motion-capture suit and act out what she did on the scene. That person then appeared as a character in the film.  De la Peña understands how working in this way could make a journalistic organization like Frontline nervous, but she thinks it'll have to learn to change their ways. "It's really fun for me to be working with someone with traditional chops," said de la Peña. "They're new to VR."