Project’s Centerpiece: Christopher Thomas Story Published & Discussed on Georgia Public Radio

Crime Report Christopher Thomas cover story 2106.11.02


Today almost a year after we started this special JJIE Virtual World Journalism Project, we published the centerpiece of our student labors, the story and the machinima mini-documentary video: Christopher: A Child Abandoned, Deprived & Imprisoned. It was published on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE.org) and simultaneously by The Crime Report housed at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Both publications have a national reach to both general audience and those most interested in youth justice issues.

The finished story and machinima speak to the truly amazing work of the 11 students at Kennesaw State University, who did all the digging through thousands of pages of documents and traveling the state of Georgia for key interviews. All with the hope that Christopher Thomas’ story could be told widely to prevent him from being hidden from public view in Georgia prisons, which too often act as our country’s Gulags for young men of color.

You can hear a synopsis of the story at Georgia Public Radio’s (GPB) Second Thoughts program, where host Celeste Headlee interviews Kennesaw State University professor Leonard Witt, who oversaw the project, and project student Anastaciah Ondieki.

Project supervising professor Leonard Witt (left and far right), Georgia GPB Second Thoughts radio show host Celeste Headley (second from left) project student Anastaciah Ondieki (center) at GPB studio.
Project supervising professor Leonard Witt (left and far right), Georgia GPB Second Thoughts radio show host Celeste Headlee (second from left) and project student Anastaciah Ondieki (center) at GPB studio.

Christopher committed a crime at age 14, there is no doubt about that, but professor Witt says, “Really the story the students uncovered shows in great detail the failure of all of us in our society to find a way support our most neglected children. If we treated these kids differently, with compassion rather constant punishments, their outcomes might be much different.”

Christopher Thomas still has one more chance for the Georgia courts to amend his 40-year sentence thanks to the work of Stephen Reba, director of the Barton Law Center’s Appeal for Youth Clinic at Emory University. Reba has been trying to find justice for Thomas for years. Of course, we will keep everyone posted on that outcome.

Until then, thanks so much for watching this project unfold and special thanks again to Gwenette Writer Sinclair, who oversaw the virtual world sections of the project and to the Kennesaw State University students, including: Claire Bohrer, Kassidy Callahan, Kevin Enners, Ariel Greenaway, Cristina Guerra, Jourdan McGhee, Camille Moore, Anastaciah Ondieki and Jackson Walsh.


Introducing Immersive Journalism to Kennesaw State University

Last night, February 8, members of the JJIE Virtual World Team presented their Fall 2015 semester immersive journalism project to the students and faculty of Kennesaw State University.
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Beginning at 5:00PM, the Kennesaw State University Social Science auditorium #1021 was occupied by KSU students and faculty immersing themselves into Nonny de la Peña’s Sundance Film Festival virtual reality story, “Kiya.” Thanks to the donation from Unofficial Cardboard, makers of the Google Cardboard Viewers that the New York Times recommends for their Virtual Reality app (NYTVR), students and faculty were able to use Google Cardboard Viewers to see for themselves what this immersive journalism talk is about.

Once they had a feel for the emerging journalism platform, project interns, Claire Bohrer, Ariel Greenaway, and Camille Moore presented the project from their perspectives as the project’s journalists. Then, Leonard Witt, the project’s founder, presented another one of Nonny de la Peña’s videos, “One Dark Night,” in which actual 911 call recordings were used to tell the story of the day Trayvon Martin was shot & killed by neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman.

After seeing an expert’s work, the audience watched the JJIE Virtual World Team’s machinimas, The Kid, The Cop, The Punch, and a few minutes of Christopher: A Child, Abandoned, Deprived & Imprisoned. Once the audience saw the team’s work, virtual world expert, Gwenette Writer-Sinclair took them inworld to the JJIE Virtual World to show them how the project interns created these machinimas (action videos inside a virtual world).

The remainder of the presentation consisted of Q&A and discussion. KSU students and faculty expressed their interest in this emerging journalism platform and the possibilities of virtual reality in multiple different realms.

To continue the conversation, the JJIE Virtual World Journalism team plans to present the project to KSU journalism classes and also at the KSU Marietta Campus within the next few weeks.
More details (and further fascinating conversation) to come.


Our Team Meets with CNN Atlanta

Two weeks ago, Edward Thomas, the Product Manager of Mobile & Emerging Technology at CNN invited the JJIE Virtual Worlds Team to present the project at CNN.

At 11 a.m. today, seven members of the JJIE Virtual Worlds team, along with Publisher & Executive Director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism (CSJ), Professor Leonard Witt, CSJ Executive Editor John Fleming, Metaverse Strategist, Designer and Trainer Gwenette Writer-Sinclair, and JJIE web producer Christopher Hayden presented the result of a semester of hard work and dedication.

The primary goal of this presentation was to introduce our work to CNN producers, perhaps with the prospect of doing further collaborative experimentational work in the intersection of virtual reality and journalism.

Here is how we envision a partnership could work:

  • The Center for Sustainable Journalism would bring together college students, providing them with educational and experiential opportunities, as they work with virtual reality immersive journalism projects in collaboration with CNN.
  • In ongoing collaboration with the VW team, CNN product managers would provide the VW team with concepts based on CNN’s specific needs in the exploration of virtual reality storytelling techniques.
  • The VW team would design virtual world interactive scenarios and immersive journalism experiences, and then come back to the CNN team for critiques and collaborative improvements to reach project goals.
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Seven JJIE Virtual Worlds student interns (left to right; Jackson Walsh, Kevin Enners, Camille Moore, Claire Bohrer, Cristina Guerra, Ariel Greenaway, Anastaciah Ondieki) at the CNN Center.

At the beginning of the JJIE Virtual Worlds project, Professor Leonard Witt said,

“If we do excellent work, we will get recognition.”

Based on the interest of CNN, one of the world’s largest news organizations, in considering a long-term relationship with the virtual worlds team, I believe it’s safe to say that the team did excellent work, which clearly paid off with recognition and possible future collaborations.

Next Steps

  • The Christopher Thomas story is still a work in progress. The long text story needs to be edited once more before presenting it to CSJ editor John Fleming for possible JJIE publication. Furthermore, the machinima story, which was the initial, sole end product of this project (wow, how that has changed), must be re-edited into a final draft before its public debut.
  • The machinima “Forgive” is also a work in progress. Students Jackson Walsh and Cristina Guerra will continue to collaborate with Gwenette to complete their creative translation of a teenage girl’s poem to an emotionally evocative machinima.
  • Student researcher Claire Bohrer will continue to conduct research around this project to determine the effect of virtual worlds journalism versus textual journalism on an audience.

As we wrap up our main Christopher Thomas Story and our Forgive machinima, we are eager to see how many more doors can be opened and partnerships created with this ever-expanding project.


Approaching the Finish Line

The smorgasbord of breakfast foods and the enthusiastic conversation at the fifteenth and final group meeting this morning at 8AM brought back memories of the very first group meeting 4 months ago. At the first group meeting, all the interns eagerly gathered together, meeting each other for the first time, openly discussing their initial thoughts and expectations of the project. However, at this final group meeting, the chatter was more of an exchange between close friends, expressing a mixture of emotions, from excitement to sadness about the end of the project.

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Professor Leonard Witt discusses the Christopher long-text story with the group.
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The entire group watches the first draft of the Christopher machinima for the first time.

Although today was the final official group meeting, the project is still not complete. While the journalists are still editing their individual segments and the full long-text story, the machinimists are working to perfect the first draft of the Christopher Thomas story, which was debuted at the meeting today. Furthermore, the campus-wide presentation of the immersive journalism project will be presented to all students and faculty at Kennesaw State University in January.

Since there is still much to be done for the completion of the project, a few of the interns’ contracts will be extended so that they can finish the project throughout December, January, and as long as it takes to complete the project.

Next week, all JJIE Virtual Worlds interns who are available will meet one more time for a final group meeting on Wednesday, December 9. Since next week is the university’s exam week, all interns will not be required to be at the meeting. However, for those who will be attending, they will prepare for a CNN presentation on December 11th. Along with this, student researcher, Claire Bohrer will be collecting information via survey and interviews for her research of the project’s process and progression, and to answer the overarching question: What can journalism professors, students and professionals learn from this nine-month experiment of using virtual world platforms to tell real-world journalism stories?

Since the entire group will not be meeting again until the January presentation, goodbyes and thank yous were exchanged, as we realized the rapidly approaching finish line of this long, tireless, enlightening journey, the reveal of its success in informing the public on very important issues in the Juvenile Justice System and more, the very real possibility of changing Christopher Thomas’s life, and of course, the dire need to document the producers of this project through a group photo.

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The JJIE Virtual World Team at the final group meeting

 


Break Week = Focus Week

Although this week is called “Thanksgiving Break” by Kennesaw State University, the JJIE Virtual World interns are certainly not abiding by the regular, relaxing procedures of a student vacation break.

Since last week’s fourteenth group meeting, the team has been constantly busy with the project’s deadline in site. At the start of the project, December 2nd was noted as the day the entire project would be finally and fully brought to fruition. It is the day that the compiled long text story will be fully written as a first draft; the day the machinima will be nearly complete; the day that the project will be even closer to its completion and its university debut in January.CollageThis week and last week, each group had a specific focus.

As the  journalists finish their individual story segments, the journalism team looks forward to what the full long text story will look like: from the writing to the pictures and the entire presentation for publication. Collaboration on segments, photo gathering, and Christopher Thomas family interviews is the group’s main focus right now.

The machinima team built the court room last week, which will be a main scene in the final machinima. Last week and this week, the machinimist’s main focus has been filming and editing.

During last week’s group meeting, the PR team was set on searching for grants. This will be their main focus as we head into our final weeks of the project.

Overall, the team knows that their work is not yet finished. So this “break” has been used as extra time to further the project’s progress as we approach our final deadlines.


Virtual Reality MeetUp

Over 100 people attended the Virtual Reality MeetUp at the Trick 3D Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, tonight. Defined as an “evening of virtual reality exhibits,” this convention welcomed a crowd of virtual reality enthusiasts, current users, business people, and others who were interested to discover the latest developments in virtual reality.

This first-ever virtual reality gallery night in Atlanta was the platform for the JJIE Virtual World team’s first in-person showcase of the project: Marginalized Youth Voices Amplified in Virtual Worlds.

Interns Claire Bohrer, Ariel Greenaway, Cristina Guerra and JJIE technologist, Christopher Hayden produced and ran the exhibit as they provided explanations of the project’s fruition, progression and objectives. Gwenette Writer Sinclair, our virtual reality specialist, was also present inworld to introduce people to our JJIE world in OpenSimulator and to answer any deeper virtual reality questions.

By the end of the night, the team had talked with various people who were enthusiastic about the project and who wanted to connect to learn more. The support from the crowd and other VR presenters was extremely encouraging, and only motivated the further growth and promotion of the project.

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The JJIE Virtual World team would like to thank Annie Eaton, the Chief Executive Officer at ATLvr who coordinated the MeetUp. We could not have asked for a better event for our project’s first showcase.


Group Efforts for Team Success

The twelfth group meeting at the Center for Sustainable Journalism went rather differently from past group meetings. For one, the group wasn’t expected to be at the Center until 9AM, as opposed to our custom 8AM arrivals. However, this later arrival time was surely not a reflection of decreased motivation nor any lesser work for completion of the project. Rather, this later hour should be viewed as an extra hour of sleep so that each team member would be even more prepared to carry out the numerous tasks that the project still required for completion. Another major difference in this group meeting was the meeting format; rather than meeting as an entire team in the conference room, each member separated into his or her specific group upon arrival. Thus, each group focused on specialized tasks to progress towards the project’s completion.

Journalism
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With the Friday deadline approaching, the members of the journalism team were hard at work, writing their individual segments for the long text story. As outlined before, the individual segments are broken up into five major events and time periods in Christopher’s life: His childhood (from age 1-11), his behavioral problems and numerous foster care placements (from 12-13), the crime (age 14), Christopher’s case and trial, and lastly, Christopher’s current status, habeas corpus and case progression with his current attorney, Steve Reba. Focusing on their particular segments, the journalists’ time consisted of making phone calls to gather further contextual information, reading through the documents to confirm the facts were straight, and pulling out quotes from interviews to add to their segments. Although it is just the rough drafts that are due on Friday, the team hopes to have a more concise outline of the full text story so that Kevin Enners can start merging all of the segments together for the entire long text story.

MachinimaMachinimaCollagee

While the journalism team was researching and writing for the long text story, the machinima team was inworld on the computers, working on getting the virtual Pawn Shop (the scene of the crime) ready for filming. In addition, the team completed the creation of the avatars for all of the characters in the machinima story. To add to the virtual world story, the team also collected more items for the machinima onto a platform inworld. Furthermore, Eric Nelson launched the creation of a more straightforward layout for the script to enable more effective recording. Piece-by-piece, the machinima story is coming together as the team prepares for filming.

Public Relations
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As the journalism and machinima team were establishing the story in text and inworld, the public relations team was focusing on promoting the project through funding in person. The team met with JJIE’s grant writer, Erica Honeycutt, who spoke about how to approach creating a grant for the project. Erica provided the public relations team with tips on grant-seeking basics: to know your mission, to determine what kind of support you are looking for, to discover who is interested in funding virtual reality, and to decide which foundations, corporations, or programs best fit with your mission. For the next week, the PR team will be researching and creating a list of potential contacts that may be interested in funding the project.

Although the members of the Virtual World Team were separated into various groups this morning, the project continues to be a team effort. Moving forward, the journalism team, the machinima team, and the public relations team will all be working as one to bring light to this story and the workings of the Juvenile Justice System.


Harvey’s Machinima

At Wednesday’s meeting, we looked at some machinima work by producer Chantal Harvey.  Primarily utilizing Second Life, all of her work was insightful and fun to watch. Her video “Robi”, tells the story of an alien left behind on a forgotten planet after losing his head. Although a simple story, the macinima is both tragic and tranquil. The designs and actions are also simple, but still manage to tell a good story. Watch “Robi” here.

 


Kennesaw State Students Release Virtual World Production

Proof-of-concept, virtual world film underwritten by Online News Association Challenge Fund

Kennesaw, Ga. (22 October 2015) – An experiment in journalism storytelling debuts today with the public release of the virtual world machinima “The Kid, The Cop, The Punch.” The story is narrated by Xavier McElrath-Bey, a youth justice advocate, telling of a childhood encounter with a violent police officer.

Leonard Witt, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University, says, “This student production is our first proof of concept in telling true stories using virtual worlds as our medium.”  Witt adds, “3D virtual reality storytelling is projected to be a multi-billion dollar industry in the near future. This experimental project is Kennesaw State University students’ portal into that future.”

“The Kid, The Cop, The Punch” was produced over the summer by computer science students Derek Maier and David Eric Nelson. The machinima, a digital inworld film, was edited by Cristina Guerra, a new media arts student.

Gwenette Writer Sinclair, virtual world developer and project consult, says, “Training our interns in virtual world skills, machinima production and teamwork collaboration tools has been one of my most rewarding projects. As we work together to meet the goals of our grant, combining real journalism and the virtual world medium, I am continually impressed by the team’s dedication, software learning skills, research abilities and creative solutions.  “The Kid, The Cop, The Punch” is one of the best first effort machinimas I have seen.”

Nelson, who has worked on virtual world set building, interactive object coding and is the master script writer for our next video, remarks, “Working on this project has been a unique experience as it has allowed us insight into the challenges and rewards of many different areas of expertise including journalism, virtual environments, and film production.”

Speaking of her internship experiences in sound editing, set design and production pipeline management, Guerra says, “Merging journalism and virtual reality has allowed us to analyze and explore a new medium that is filled with possibilities. Virtual reality is much more than it seems. It allows the user to truly experience and be immersed in a world that offers many different perspectives. This, combined with real journalism, makes for engaging and informative machinima.”

Maier said, “Researching these stories help us realize the troubles that youth today face. By recreating their stories in the virtual world we gain more insight into the juvenile justice system and experience a deeper sense of the difficulties they faced. Through the medium of machinima we can share that perspective with others.”

Maier, Nelson and Guerra have been joined this fall semester by eight other KSU student interns comprising a full production company specializing in journalism, machinima making and social media.

Along with “The Kid, The Cop, The Punch,” two other mini-documentary, virtual world machinima are currently in production. One is based on an autobiographical poem written by a 17-year-old incarcerated girl; the other, an investigative journalism piece, focuses on a 14-year-old boy, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison when convicted as an unarmed tag-along in a non-lethal shooting.

Learn more about the JJIE Virtual World Project as an ONA Challenge Fund winner and its project goals on our Project Overview page.

The Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University, just outside of Atlanta, is one of the 2015-2016 winners of the Online News Association Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. This journalism project, “Marginalized Youth Voices Amplified in Virtual Worlds,” is underwritten by that winning grant. The Challenge Fund is administered by the Online News Association with support from the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Rita Allen Foundation.

About The Center for Sustainable Journalism:

The Center for Sustainable Journalism and its online publication, The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE.org), are located at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, Ga. The JJIE.org is  the only national publication covering juvenile justice issues on a consistent, daily basis. By focusing on delivering information and an “exchange” of ideas, the JJIE.org fosters a community of support around the issues facing youth across the USA.

The Online News Association is a leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism; a catalyst for innovation in storytelling across all platforms; a resource for journalists seeking guidance and growth; and a champion of best practices through training, awards, community outreach.

Kennesaw State University is the third-largest university in Georgia, offering more than 100 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees. A member of the University System of Georgia, Kennesaw State is a comprehensive university with more than 32,000 students from 130 countries. In January 2015, Kennesaw State and Southern Polytechnic State University consolidated to create one of the 50 largest public universities in the country.


Machinimist Chantal Harvey Shares Machinima & Production Tips

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At the interns’ weekly meeting on October 21, Chantal Harvey visited the team via Skype.  Chantal has a professional background as Dutch television producer and artist. Since 2007, Chantal has been exploring Real Time Animation through the medium of virtual world machinima.  During the meeting, she shared several of her machinima, including an educational series and the first machinima from her new fun machinima series, “Robi.”  Chantal discussed many aspects of machinima development, which she referred to as “virtual world animation.”  She shared many production tips from basics to advanced techniques that are key to creating a professional, quality machinima.  Her advice on sound editing and frame rate optimizing will prove especially helpful in the interns’ next two machinima projects, “The Christopher Story” and “Forgive: A Poem.”

Why did Chantal decide to explore machinima?  On her website she explains, “I started working with machinima after completing film school in Belgium, I was attracted by the creativity and possibilities it offers. You really are only limited by your own imagination and by how much you have mastered the concepts that are involved. Because the cost of machinima production is so low compared to any other form of animation, there is a whole new market opening up, in education, children’s entertainment, art, multimedia, books and commercials.”

Yes, it is true that Chantal is very talented at what she does, but this is not the only reason why Chantal continues to produce machinima, as she explains,  “[It’s] a little like jumping inside your computer and directing animated characters, creating  your own film crew, with your own film studio. It is . . a ton of fun.”

The entire JJIE Virtual Worlds team is very grateful to Chantal for taking the time to share her passion and expertise with them. The team will make good use of Chantal’s advice in their next projects showcasing a young man’s story and a young woman’s poem through the medium of machinima filmed in virtual world.