Taming a new medium: 360° video for journalism

In conversation with Euronews editor Thomas Seymat, on immersive journalism in an international newsroom

2018.05.31 | Hannah Spyksma

“360 video literally allows a multitude of perspectives” — Thomas Seymat. Image: Screenshot from Euronews.

In April 2015 Thomas Seymat was sent to cover a media trade show for Euronews. As a bit of a self-confessed technical geek, he’d been working on live blogs and special projects for the organisation for some time. But seeing the cutting edge of digital media storytelling sent him back to the office with a new direction to pursue: VR. Since then, Thomas has pioneered the use of 360 video and immersive journalism at Euronews. He’s secured Google Digital News Innovation funding to experiment with the use of this technology, trained dozens of staff at Euronews, been selected as ambassador for a global Journalism360 network, spoken at more than 15 conferences across Europe about immersive journalism in an international newsroom and developed a method for producing 360 videos in several news contexts — all without having a background in video.

It’s been a fast, steep learning curve and now Thomas is stepping up the research component of his experimenting. He’s one of 12 leading media innovators worldwide to be be awarded a RJI Fellowship for 2018, and will spend eight months at the University of Missouri campus to develop and test a prototype for measuring audience reactions to 360 video projects. He hopes his project will provide vital insight into how immersive storytelling is gauged by audiences — an important part of the production feedback loop that has been so far missing from research. Following the announcement of his selection, I talked with Thomas about what he’s learnt from over two years spent working with 360 video in the newsroom — and what needs to happen next to continue developing and normalising the use of immersive practices for journalism.

Hannah: First, I wanted to talk about your Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship — what exactly you intend to do while you’re in Missouri?

Thomas: With the RJI fellowship I’m not really going back to school, just to study or learn something new or extend my horizons: I’m going to solve a problem. And it’s a problem that I identified with my experience as a VR editor here at Euronews. When content creators — whether it’s journalists or producers of fiction — publish a 360 video, or even design it, we edit and think about it and conceptualise it, but we don’t really know if what we are doing works.

Because the distribution of 360 content is spread out on several platforms and they don’t all have the same metrics, they don’t all have the same analytics either; you don’t really know how your videos are performing unless you’re playing very close attention to all of them. And when you do a lot, it’s difficult. So, instead of relying on gut feelings, my idea was to ask what else can we learn by listening to our audience.

What I want to do, is try and build a tool that helps content creators (and advertisers too because that will help with the monetisation challenges as well) prototype stories in 360 video, and then submit these stories to an audience sample, who would be able to give feedback afterwards. The hope is that there will be a large number of people to give that feedback, so you would know for instance why, at a certain moment in the scene, a lot of people just drop out and stop watching the video. You would not only see it in the metrics but have the feedback on why. I think having this sort of evidence-based feedback would help storytellers a great deal.

You’ve mentioned ‘gut feeling’ as a current metric that gets used to assess the effectiveness of storytelling for immersive journalism projects. Could explain a little bit more about how you work currently with 360°video at Euronews?

We’ve been doing this at EuroNews (on an industrial scale so to speak) since June 2016. We thought initially we were going to do ‘No Comment’ which is a programme on our news that has no voice over, no hosts, it’s about 90 seconds of raw video with just a place and a date. It’s a very popular sort of vignette on Euronews. And we thought we were going to do that.

But we found out that the 360° version of these vignettes, because they lacked any sort of editorial context, weren’t working well past the point of ‘oh this is cool, I’m in the middle of Oktoberfest, I’m in the middle of the bull running in Pamplona’. That’s nothing — it wasn’t really telling a story. It wasn’t really, it didn’t feel like journalism.

So we went through three phases:

  • First, how do you shoot technically sound for 360° video, because it’s not scripted, it’s not fiction, so you can’t have actors, you can’t replicate stuff — it’s real life.
  • Then, how do you make this journalism (the 5 w’s and h) and report the news.
  • The last step was asking how do you make technically good video be both journalistic and also engaging — the storytelling aspect.

I think now we’ve reached the point where we have some maturity in our style and compared to other media we probably use journalists in the video more. In terms of the audience reception, like I said, it’s difficult to actually know because we put our videos on our website, on our apps, on our mobile website, on youtube and facebook and a couple of 360 platforms and the view on one platform does not equal the view on another platform.

But what I’ve noticed — and it’s anecdotal because we publish in many languages that I don’t speak — is that when I look at the comments of the videos, I’ve seen that people have stopped commenting on ‘oh wow that’s a 360 piece, it’s cool’. Now, it’s more about the content and the context of the video.

I think this is encouraging because we’re past this ‘wow’ effect, and people are more used to seeing VR, especially in our audience because we’ve exposed them to a lot of that.

What kind of journalism do you think these videos are suited to then? And what kind of storytelling as well?

It’s clear that not every story is worth telling in 360. And that’s the main question I ask my colleagues when they come to me with a story. Why do you want that in 360 and how do you see it working in 360°?

If you do an interview of a CEO the day the quarterly earnings are released, it’s not worth doing in 360 unless his office is really really visual, like last floor on a Manhattan tower or something. Visual stories work well when you bring your audience to a place they can’t access, that’s far away or difficult to access like backstage or secret spaces.

We used 360 videos to burst the filter bubbles of audiences, and we immersed them in the daily life of people they would not necessarily meet.

But we’ve also tried to push the boundaries a little bit on our work around the French and German election campaigns. We used 360 videos to burst the filter bubbles of audiences, and we immersed them in the daily life of people they would not necessarily meet. For instance, we filmed in the western French Caribbean, we filmed in rural Germany, and the suburbs of Paris, and we filmed in a Loire valley castle. We were working with local media and portraying a discussion between local journalists and the voters.

So, they were voters portraits, which isn’t a new format in itself. But using a 360 video we could immerse our audience into the daily life of those people and they could, if they wanted, see how the locals in these places live, listen to what they were asking and what they had to say.

Our hope was that the audience would be able to meet people who you would not be able to usually — like, if you are a far right voter you don’t meet people from like the suburbs of Paris, if you’re someone from the suburbs of Paris you don’t meet someone who owns a castle in the centre of France.

Some of those videos are spectacularly visual, the French Caribbean islands were nice, clearly because you have nice clear beaches with the blue water and the sand. But some of them were just regular countryside and terrain, not spectacular.

So, I would say: Don’t limit yourself to one specific kind of story. Typically, a lot of people have done stuff around refugees, and conflict. We’ve done a lot about climate change as well. And that works, because the medium puts you there. Those places are far away and sometimes dangerous. But, you could do a good 360 story on a very local story for instance.

I like that in this way, it moves this type of storytelling away from necessary just being used for softer news topics with longer lead times and actually, what you’re saying, is you can use 360 video for more hard news news stories as well.

Yeah, harder news usually has a shorter turn around. And it’s getting easier to do short turn around videos because the cameras are better, the software is better, so you can in half a day do a 360 story about something that is very tight, very hard news.

For instance AP shot right after the hurricane in Texas. They clearly had to edit it on their laptop and probably while still in a boat or something when they published it because it was so fast. You couldn’t do that three years ago when we started this. It was very difficult.

And there’s this question of 360 video and immersive media, whether it helps with empathy. There is evidence for that. But I’m a little bit of a skeptic because I think the brain is powerful; the brain is stubborn, if you will, and cognitive biases are pretty strong. If you show a video of a boat landing in Lesbos full of refugees or asylum seekers to someone who already has a lot of prejudices against that type of population, it’s not going to change their mind like ‘oh I was so wrong, they’re suffering and we need to help them’. He (or she’s) not going to have this reaction, I don’t think.

It goes for all the types of stories, the content doesn’t have to be so polarising. So, I’m a little bit on the fence. I know there are some evidence for this aspect of empathy and even some research done on it, but I would be careful. It’s not like the end all, the be all; it’s not that the only reason for 360 video to exist is to make people feel good, or to sympathise with people or causes in the video.

What would you say then to this, I guess, there’s also been a hesitation in general from many news organisations and within journalism research to move towards this more creative, and visual storytelling format or formats. And part of that is that whole traditional idea of objectivity and these kind of storytelling modes being in opposition to that (ideology). What would you say in response to this?

First of all, innovation in media is difficult because it’s not fail proof and it costs a lot of money. And media are risk averse, usually, and they don’t have a lot of budget. We had the luck to be backed by this Digital News Initiative fund from Google, a support which has really helped with my work over the last years. That alleviated a lot of the risk adversity in the company.

That being said, you can now experiment with 360 on a smaller budget than what was required two years ago. And that is not just like the physical costs but the immaterial costs have gone down as well. There is now a lot of resources for 360 video and immersive journalism available online; so for instance Journalism 360 has a blog — I’m part of it — so we’ve done some ‘hangouts’ etc. Back when I started, there was nothing, only a few tutorials about how to shoot 360 but it was for cinematic VR and not anything related to journalism.

Now, to objectivity.

I think 360 video is a de-intermediated media because the audience has a lot more freedom to look inside the video compared to flat video. Of course, you still are a journalist when you shoot the video. And you still decide what to shoot; what’s your angle, where you put your camera, when you press record and whether you’re going to edit the video.

But it’s a lot harder to guide the eye of the audience, you can’t really force the narrative with 360 because you can’t zoom, you can’t pan, you can’t do back and forth with interviews you can’t do all that and there’s no offscreen, there’s no off camera. So the audience has a lot more freedom to look around.

 

They’re not free to tell their own stories, at least when it comes to 360 video it’s a linear video — you press play and you can look around but it’s not interactive. But that being more free, cutting out the middleman or stopping the spoon feeding, is important for us at Euronews.

We changed the company’s tagline recently. It’s now ‘All Views’. Indeed, Euronews wants to be a platform where all views are welcome and we can discuss and exchange and not represent one specific voice. 360 video literally allows a multitude of perspectives on one event. You can look around, you can see more than what a journalist wants you to see.

That’s my point about objectivity: I don’t believe in objectivity, I believe that you should be clear about where you’re speaking from as a journalist and that’s fine, but I think 360 video can be a tool that plays in that direction where you are more trustworthy because you’re more transparent — it’s a more transparent medium because you see everything, there’s nobody hiding behind the camera so to speak.

We’re still journalists, so if 360 video can help build trust back then it’s good. But we still have a story to tell and a job to do.

Alumni, News
Tags: immersive journalism, journalism 360, virtual reality, VR, international newsroom, newsroom, Euronews