Explanatory reporting, drone journalism and VR help tell the story of the COVID-19 era

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In this regular column, Ryerson University School of Journalism professor Adrian Ma explores emerging trends, technological developments and compelling work in the burgeoning field of immersive storytelling, including 360 video and virtual, augmented and mixed reality content.

“Wait, what day is it again?”

Raise your hand if you’ve uttered these words while speaking to a friend or colleague at some point during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst our disrupted schedules and working within the safety recommendations of our public health officials, this outbreak has forced reporters and the newsrooms they work for to adopt new workflows and experiment with new approaches to reporting. 

However, one silver lining is that media makers have stepped up in a big way as news consumption globally has increased substantially since the pandemic struck, particularly for television and online news. This is one of the key findings in this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report, which is based on survey data collected from 40 international markets. While the report acknowledges the continued decline of physical newspapers, a note of optimism is that trust in media coverage of the pandemic was found to be “relatively high in all countries” and that “media trust was more than twice the level for social networks, video platforms, or messaging services when it come to information about COVID-19.”  

Around the world, journalists have done some absolutely incredible and innovative work on covering COVID-19 under extremely challenging circumstances. Here are a few digital reporting highlights that I’ve found to be particularly compelling.

A heyday for explanatory and data journalism


During the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, it was perhaps difficult to fully grasp just how virulent and potentially devastating this respiratory infection could be. The Washington Post put together one of the most elegant and well-designed interactive explainers I have ever seen to illustrate how quickly this virus could spread. Not only did they produce easy to understand and digestible animated simulations, they took it further by presenting multiple scenarios based on different public health interventions to flatten the curve.

A major concern with the COVID-19 pandemic was the enormous pressure it would put on hospitals. ProPublica developed a somewhat chilling infographic package that highlights how much duress the U.S. health-care system would experience with different scenarios of infection rates. A useful addition to this project is the ability for Americans to search for data and projections on their region to help them gain a better understanding of their local situation. 

The South China Morning Post has a long history of publishing fantastic illustrations and infographics in both their print and online products, and its newsroom did some fantastic and engaging visuals using COVID-19 data. This page here pulls together several types of graphics that explain different aspects of this ongoing story, from a global case count tracker to illustrations of the makeshift hospitals erected in Wuhan, China to infographics explaining the optimal ways to stay hygienic during the pandemic. This really is a wonderful assortment of content that highlights the myriad ways one can present data.

Use of drone footage

Drone journalism hasn’t quite taken off the way some news industry prognosticators envisioned a few years ago due to continued concerns about safety regulations and privacy, but a few newsrooms have been incorporating more drone footage into their stories as a way of dealing with physical distancing precautions. Certainly, there have been several scenic flyby videos used to illustrate how our cities look during lockdown, which can be interesting. When combined with more reporting or editing techniques, the drone footage can really help supplement news stories, like these different pieces about the mass burials of COVID-19 victims in New York City’s Hart Island.  Drone footage has also been an effective way of covering the numerous protests that have taken place across the world during the pandemic, from the demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers to California residents protesting “stay at home orders” in Sacramento. 

Potential for AR/VR/MR

I’ve come across some intriguing examples of coronavirus-related content using augmented, virtual and mixed reality applications, although most of these haven’t come from journalists. It makes sense to me that these overworked newsrooms have excelled at data reporting and using video to cover COVID-19 because that is what they are best equipped to do. But perhaps there are some interesting ideas newsrooms can draw from as we continue to work through this global pandemic.

The first example comes from Flow Immersive, which is a company that specializes in creating augmented reality data experiences. It’s basically taking data visualizations but giving them a pretty cool Tony Stark treatment to create a more three-dimensional way to engage with the information. In this video, COVID-19 statistics are presented in an incredibly interactive way, offering people new ways to perceive and absorb the data.

Another example comes from Dr. Keith Mortman at George Washington University Hospital. Mortman partnered with VR visualization company Surgical Theater to create a 3D virtual tour of a COVID-19 patient’s damaged lungs to show what the virus can do to the human body. Mortman told ABC News-affiliate WJLA he developed this project because he wanted people, especially those that were “still not heeding the warnings,” to “understand the damage that’s being done to the lungs and the severity of the disease that this is causing.”

And finally, in terms of 360/VR video, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania produced a 360 video that is particularly insightful and interesting, demonstrating how doctors would treat a COVID-19 patient facing respiratory failure. Seeing the whole process of how a patient is hooked up to a potentially life-saving ventilator and how much expertise and resources are involved in this made me better understand how harrowing it would be if a hospital became overrun with severe cases. 

Adrian Ma is an award-winning journalist and an assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism in Toronto. He has spent most of his journalism career as a reporter and digital producer and specializes in teaching multimedia storytelling and personal branding.