JOVRNALISM students cover US-Mexico border using virtual reality

In addition to their project in Tijuana, JOVRNALISM met with community members providing deportees with basic necessities, counseling, Spanish language lessons and religious guidance. Photo courtesy of Robert Hernandez.

Students in journalism professor Robert Hernandez’s virtual reality class witnessed a transnational conversation during their summer trip to Tijuana reporting on the United States-Mexico border.

Using a split screen, the group of students filmed an American woman named Destinee in the U.S. and her father, who now lives in Tijuana after being deported.

The students traveled to the border as part of Hernandez’s “Hands on Disruption: Experimenting with Emerging Technologies” course offered by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. In Tijuana, Mexico, the students reported on deportees and the communities established to support them. The JOVRNALISM team, as the group is dubbed, documented the stories in 360-degree video and created a five-part series called “The Deported,” which was released over the summer.

The team spoke to deportees and their families, as well as religious and charitable services designed to aid their transition into life in a new and often unfamiliar nation.

“We were hunting for being trapped in the ‘in between,’” Hernandez said. “You’ve been kicked out of a country that you know and that you identify with because they don’t think you’re a citizen, and you’re in a country where you have no history and they’re looking at you as an outsider.”

The group partnered with KCRW reporter Jenny Hamel and KCRW digital editor Caitlin Shamberg, who helped the group publish their work.

The videos were recorded in 360 degrees and can be viewed two dimensionally on a screen or in virtual reality with a headset.

“Being able to immerse yourself in this place that we read about a lot and … explore what it feels like to be amidst these crowds who are hoping to get asylum into the U.S. or to be inside a shelter that’s really just tents on the concrete ground, you get a different type of immersive experience that can hopefully build empathy for these stories,” Shamberg said.

Hernandez’s class is student-led; students enjoy independence when it comes to pitching and voting on ideas, conducting interviews and filming and editing videos. Since there is no prerequisite, the course attracts both undergraduate and graduate students of various backgrounds and levels of experience with film and journalism.

“We are learning a lot of things at the same time, so a lot of these folks have never done journalism,” Hernandez said. “[We’re] learning by doing. We aim for a goal and, in a hackathon, you get what you get, and I think what we got was really beautiful.”

Helen Arase, who graduated from USC last spring, said Hernandez’s course taught her how to work spontaneously, rather than rely on a structured schedule.

“The value of the class is so much more than just the story you get out of it at the end,” Arase said. “The way we looked at these people’s stories is different than how I would have done it before the semester.”

Hernandez said he believes that new technologies like 360-degree video and virtual reality are the future of media and that it is crucial for journalists to become adept at using them.

“Why wait before [virtual reality and other new technologies] become mainstream?” Hernandez said. “Why don’t we get ahead of the curve and not only lead this disruption but also shape it so the ethics and values that I have as a journalist are baked into that?”