Can virtual reality improve juvenile justice reporting?

Students at Kennesaw State University outside of Atlanta are set to embark on a fascinating experiment in using virtual reality technology to bring to life the stories of children caught in the juvenile justice system.

The project, which recently received a $35,000 grant from the Online News Association’s $1M Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education, aims to create mini-documentaries that give voice to children who are often marginalized in traditional coverage of juvenile justice issues by the confidentiality that is designed to protect them. Protecting confidentiality in, say, a typical broadcast story—a child is heard as a disembodied robot voice or seen as a pair of hands or a silhouette—can dilute the story’s impact.

Kennesaw State, which runs the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, has experience doing these kinds of stories–and even their best work shows the limitations confidentiality can pose. In a heartbreaking piece published in their magazine, the subject of the story, a violent 13-year-old who was locked up in a juvenile facility and wasn’t getting the psychiatric treatment his mother believed he needed, is identified only by a pseudonym and his experiences are explained by his mother.

The folks at Kennesaw State see virtual reality technology as a way to create compelling documentary-style films that let the children tell their own stories while still protecting their identity. In the project’s own words: “As life-like avatars, they will walk and talk audiences through their story of being in detention, of being arrested, of being homeless, and of being lost in the system.”

Students recruited for the project will use machinima, a technique first developed by gamers to make mini-movies of their exploits in video games. Len Witt, the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication and journalism professor at Kennesaw State, heads the project and says he and his team have already begun to recruit students and hope to have two begin working over the summer to set up the architecture.

“If you get the right students, they’ve been playing round with this for years and in ways none of us understand,” Witt said. “They’re going to scout locations and build the sets the students will use in the fall. A city street will be there for them to use. A prison will be there for them to use, maybe several prisons. Then we’ll run some of the classes in this virtual world. Then we’ll ask to journalism students to go out and do the stories.”

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Witt hopes to produce a couple of mini-documentaries by the end of the first semester. From there, he envisions integrating the technique into the work the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange does and maybe making the documentaries interactive.

The documentaries will be available via mobile apps, meaning the effort won’t be limited by the shifting release date of Facebook’s Oculus Rift goggle technology. Kennesaw State brought in virtual world developer Gwenette Writer Sinclair to consult on the project. Writer Sinclair has worked for Kennesaw State in the past developing the university’s Second Life campus.

“Universities and newsrooms need to do that, go out and find those people they can bring in to do these new things,” Witt said.

The ONA mini-grant was also key.

“There is this infrastructure out there to help niche nonprofits to thrive and experiment,” Witt said. “With this, we can show that high quality public policy-oriented journalism has a place.”

I wrote last year about a different ONA grant recipient using those resources to train minority students in investigative reporting while supplementing the investigative resources at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the local PBS affiliate. That effort resulted in stories in the AJC and on WSB-TV about a local politician with tens of thousands of dollars mysteriously missing from his campaign financial reports.

It will be months, at least, until we see results from the ONA-supported experiment at Kennesaw State. I’ll be watching with interest. In my experience reporting on juvenile justice, even finding victims willing to talk can be a struggle, in part because they often have little input into how the story will be told. Technology, as Kennesaw State aims to show, has the potential to change the way stories about some of the most vulnerable people are told.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.