Robert Hernandez, Stuart Sender, Ben Kreimer and Kacey Weiniger shot their project at the Salton Sea. (Photo/Ian James, The Desert Sun)

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VR, 360-degree video help journalism students tell stories at USC Annenberg

Robert Hernandez uses cutting-edge tech to teach the next generation of immersive storytellers

November 13, 2017 Ian Chaffee

The medium is the message, as the words of media theorist Marshall McLuhan have echoed for several generations of communications students, and no media in the last several years has had quite the potential to upend the message like 360-degree video and virtual reality.

Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review proclaimed that “the future is now with VR journalism.” A recent Associated Press study found virtual reality platforms do, in fact, increase viewer engagement for journalistic stories. Recent projects from media companies such as The Washington Post and The Guardian have covered everything from the first six months of a child’s life to the last hour of African-American Freddie Gray’s life as augmented or virtual experiences.

Currently leading the charge for 360-degree and virtual reality-based journalism at USC is USC Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication Associate Professor Robert Hernandez, now entering his third year of teaching his trademarked virtual reality journalism class called “JOVRNALISM.”

Watch “Turning Tides, the Story of the Salton Sea,” a collaboration between USC VR journalism and The Desert Sun.

A self-described “hackademic” and “mad scientist of journalism” who has led the bleeding edge of nearly every journalism technology trend in the 2010s — from teaching the first-ever Google Glass class at any major university to helping co-found the popular online journalism Twitter hashtag #wjchat — Hernandez is an early adopter of what could very well be the future way everyone consumes, and produces, media.

Expanding the storyteller’s toolkit

Beyond providing his students with access to literal tools to report these stories — things like smartphone snap-on 360 cameras, GoPros and drones — Hernandez is also giving them the personal tools to thrive in the newsrooms of the future, immersing them in a new, active and collaborative storytelling mindset. Hernandez said his class operates much like a “hackathon,” where ideas are suggested, implemented and sometimes discarded in an instant, resembling the startup-minded new media companies of the last several years, while also bringing together a more collaborative-than-usual mindset to the practice of journalism.

The biggest takeaway from these projects is the power of bringing diverse students together to creatively explore new technologies and how they can be applied to journalism.

Robert Hernandez

“The strength in this emerging platform now is the level of experimentation needed. We don’t know what makes an effective story and what doesn’t. So we get to create these first drafts, these prototypes and help define this space, and the students bring such a fresh, innovative perspective that is not held back by traditions brought over from other media,” Hernandez said. “The biggest takeaway from these projects is the power of bringing diverse students together to creatively explore new technologies and how they can be applied to journalism. The diverse backgrounds and skill sets bring in different perspectives that are often not a factor in the industry.”

Giovanni Moujaes, a former student from Hernandez’s class who is now a social video producer with Los Angeles television station KTLA, agrees.

“As we all know, the digital world is growing and becoming more and more important every day. Part of that is digital journalism and storytelling. Not keeping up with the pace of industry change means some journalism students will get left behind, but not the ones coming out of USC Annenberg,” he said. “Despite being only 22, I felt confident walking into a newsroom and taking command of new projects. So now I feel like I’m ahead of the curve and not simply riding it.”

For the class’ first comprehensive reporting project, “Hell and High Water,” an adaptation of what ended up being a prophetic 2016 ProPublica report on Houston’s potential for disastrous flooding, Hernandez and his students were the only university team to win a Society for News Design Best Digital Design award of excellence, among other entrants from major outlets like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

Just this month, for another report on the threats to the environment and communities at the Salton Sea, which included drone footage and interviews with local residents, scientists and politicians, Hernandez and his students won an Online Journalism Award in the Online News Association’s student division.

Hernandez himself won the 2015 Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, which singled out his innovation in journalism instruction.

Legacy media takes notice

For each of these intense and deeply immersive projects, Hernandez has also found a way to bring along high-level media partners, allowing students to work elbow-to-elbow with potential future peers. Among those partners have been The New York Times and National Public Radio, which both worked with Hernandez’s students on covering the 2017 presidential inauguration and Washington, D.C. women’s march in 360-degree video. For NPR, it was only the second such foray into 360-degree storytelling.

Cameron Quon, another former student, said the class presented a unique experience for him and other students to discover and try out media innovation techniques with those already in the industry.

“I cannot stress how much I learned from working directly with professional journalists,” he said. “By working with them, I now know the industry standards that are practiced and expected of me in whatever job I get in any journalism field.”

For those professional journalists, they are learning something as well. Desert Sun consumer experience director Sarah Day Owen, who worked with Hernandez’s students on the Salton Sea story, said that collaboration deepened the staff’s approach and techniques for using virtual reality production tools.

In visiting the classes at USC and being embedded with the teams while they shot VR work, we learned much more about the cameras, the editing, the shooting strategies.

Sarah Day Owen

“The Desert Sun staff working on the project — reporters Ian James and Sammy Roth, visual journalist Zoe Meyers, myself and executive editor Greg Burton — were somewhat familiar with virtual reality storytelling, but in visiting the classes at USC and being embedded with the teams while they shot VR work, we learned much more about the cameras, the editing, the shooting strategies,” Owen said.

Some of Hernandez’s students are also starting to have an impact as embedded “VR-vangelists” in traditional newsrooms. Kaite Mullin is one of those students. Now working with The New York Times’ 360 team as an immersive video journalist, she said the newspaper continues to expand its 360-degree journalism initiative, with many staff members throughout the newspaper beginning to see the value of virtual reality in telling all kinds of stories.

“I definitely think that the mindset toward VR as a newsroom tool has changed over the course of the last year. Not long ago, it would have been nearly impossible to produce a 360 video every single day, but with better cameras, more diverse software and a lot of trial and error, we have been doing it for almost a year now at The New York Times,” she said. “We’ve also discovered that 360 video has a lot of potential as a breaking news format because it brings the audience right to the center of the action. When I was in college, very few of my peers had even heard of VR, let alone experienced it in a news environment, but now it appears regularly in multimedia news coverage.”

USC: an epicenter of VR-based narrative

Hernandez and his class are just the latest example of what is already becoming a significant history of pioneering work at USC in VR-based narrative. Among those pioneers is Hernandez’s predecessor at USC Annenberg, Nonny de la Pena, called the “godmother of virtual reality” by more than one media outlet. De la Pena previously worked with USC Annenberg students on Hunger in Los Angeles, a VR film about life among the urban homeless that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.

While she was at USC, de la Pena also oversaw a summer intern named Palmer Luckey, who would go on to create the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and then sell that business to Facebook for $2 billion.

Their meeting place, USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, has itself been on the leading edge of using virtual reality and technologies like it to engage participants in VR-based narratives and experiments since its founding in 1999. Not long after it was established, Scott Fisher and Mark Bolas, VR pioneers whose work dates back to the 1980s, also joined the university to oversee new development in immersive technologies.

Last year, Bolas, Fisher, de la Pena and Luckey were each named as one of the top 25 innovators in the history of virtual reality by Polygon. ICT’s current director for medical virtual reality, Skip Rizzo, and Michael Naimark, formerly of the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media & Games Division, were also included, giving USC nearly a quarter representation on the entire list.

More recently, the Institute for Creative Technologies has partnered with the USC Shoah Foundation —The Institute for Visual History and Education to create a virtual human experience in which participants can question an actual Holocaust survivor in real time based on virtually recorded testimony. Last year, USC Sea Grant partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey and the city of Santa Monica to give Santa Monica Pier visitors a firsthand look at projected 100-year sea rise there.

As technology improves, we may see even more ways virtual reality is used to make consumers better empathize and think about the world around them, though Hernandez himself believes widespread acceptance and distribution as a form still has a way to go.

“There are a lot of different challenges facing us, but the biggest obstacle in immersive storytelling is distribution,” he said. “One of the things we are starting to explore is how we can make the consumer experience more social rather than just an individual locked in a headset.”