Use of Force’s Nonny de la Peña on Pushing Journalism into the Interactive Realm

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Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro watches Use of Force through 3-D goggles at the Tribeca Film Festival's Storyscapes exhibition. (Photo: Richard Patterson / Bombay Sapphire)

Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro watches Nonny de la Peña’s Use of Force through 3-D goggles at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Storyscapes exhibition. (Photo: Richard Patterson / Bombay Sapphire)

“Transmedia” is all about blurred lines and expanding the boundaries of traditional media. But it’s not just platforms and production methods whose confines are being tested. This expansion is also altering the distinctions between truth and fiction, news and advocacy, neutrality and partiality.

Multi-platform storytelling is giving journalists in particular a new spectrum of creativity within which to compose and share their stories. But how does this leeway affect objectivity?

Self-described “immersive journalist” Nonny de la Peña confronts these issues head on in her work, which uses new technology to explores human rights issues and enable readers or audiences to engage directly with the material in her stories. With a 20-year track record in traditional journalism, de la Peña has been pushing these boundaries for several years, perhaps no more so than in her current interactive installation, Use of Force.

Use of Force, which is premiering and is currently on display at Storyscapes (a collaboration between the Tribeca Film Festival and Bombay Sapphire gin) has eschewed the trappings of traditional journalism entirely. The 3-D virtual reality experience — which de la Peña refers to as a documentary — is not accompanied by a traditional explanatory article, leaving it up to the viewer entirely to decide what is happening. Once you wear the 3-D goggles — custom built by de la Peña’s team — you are brought to the scene of a deadly beating of a migrant by U.S.-Mexico border patrol officers.

Though this visceral experience feels a bit like a video game, it’s straight out of real life. But is it news? Documentary? Something else? Does it even matter how we categorize it? De la Peña explains: “Because of the newness of the approach — integrating motion capture, 3-D animation, cell phone video, building our own goggles –­­ it’s undefined. The lexicon doesn’t exist yet.” She’s even come up with some of her own terms that correlate with traditional media experiences, like an “embodied edit,” where you go into a new part of the story with your body.

The presentation of the materials is entirely new, and certainly has a point of view, but de la Peña employed traditional journalistic methods to get there, conducting extensive document reviews, research and eyewitness interviews.

“I used to defend my right to be a journalist in virtual space,” she says, “but now I feel like it is what it is. I’ve now put thousands of people through these pieces and I know they work. People come out of them feeling moved and that they’ve experienced a story.”

That being said, her defense in a nutshell? De la Peña tells it straight. “I’m giving you a subjective bodily experience, but that doesn’t mean that the content can’t be informed by journalistic best practices.”

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What immersive journalism stories have you seen done effectively? Which have been less successful? Do traditional notions of objectivity have a place in immersive journalism?

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Liz Nord
Liz Nord
Filmmaker and multi-platform producer Liz Nord (Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock In The Holy Land) is embracing transmedia with her new documentary project, Jerusalem Unfiltered and as director of Lyka's Adventure Labs. She has produced media projects around the world, including MTV's Emmy Award-winning 2008 presidential election coverage, and has presented on a wide range of creativity and media-related topics, notably as a TED speaker at TEDxDumbo.