The Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University is one of the 2015-16 winners of the Online News Association’s grant “Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education”. 

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.

Marginalized Youth Voices Amplified on Virtual Worlds


Team Leaders

  • Leonard Witt, Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication and journalism professor, Kennesaw State University, @leonardwitt
  • John Fleming, Executive Editor, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange
, @johnfleming2005
  • Gwenette Writer Sinclair, CEO, Virtual World Developer and Trainer, Social Media Strategist, and Website Designer, Virtual Dev Studio.
  • Solomon Negash, Executive Director of the Mobile Application Development (MAD) Center, Kennesaw State University
  • Roger Newton, Video Editor,
  • Farooq Kperogi, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Emerging Media, @farooqkperogi
  • Rachel Wallack, Print Editor, Youth Today, @rawallack
  • James Pound, IT specialist,, @JamesPoundIV
  • Timothy Hedeen, Professor of Conflict Management, Kennesaw State University; Editorial Board Member, Family Court Review, @MSCM_kennesaw
  • John Lash, Executive Director, Georgia Conflict Center, @JohnLash1
  • Carolyn Carlson, Journalism Professor, Kennesaw State University, @ccarls10
  • Stephen McNeill, Assistant Professor, Advanced Digital Audio and Video Production, Kennesaw State University

Describe your project as a tweet

@CSJournalism @KennesawState students produce nonfiction youth justice mini-docs on cutting edge virtual world platforms @jjienews

#virtualworld #VR #immersivejournalism #3D #avatar #machinima

What are you going to test?

The virtual reality (VR) journalism being created by Nonny de la Peña formerly at the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC is, in time, going to change how we view the world and how journalists tell their stories. It is time for journalism students to begin to learn the language and nuances of this coming VR storytelling world. We will demonstrate how students working in a real newsroom can use existing virtual world (VW) tools to begin that journey to VR storytelling via telling stories of youth who are among the 50,000 annually involved in the Georgia juvenile justice system.

How will the experiment be conducted?

Often in juvenile justice coverage the voices of involved youth are missing. Confidentiality and protecting children are important, yet they are rarely given a voice to uncover systemic abuses. Melissa Sickmund, National Center for Juvenile Justice, in 2009 said: “If the public really knew, they would be appalled, not at the behavior of the kids, but at the behavior of the system.”

We will tell their stories inside virtual world (VW) environments which the kids will help design. 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.

Gwenette Sinclair will be our hands-on consultant. She’s a long time VW developer, with projects at Kennesaw State University, Rutgers University, and University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation & Training at the US Army Virtual World Research Lab. We will build a library of VW storytelling tools, avatars, interactive bots, and digital assets and scenes. An interdisciplinary journalism and technology class will use these resources to produce machinima (VW videos). The student teams will work with editors in the live newsroom to produce broadcast quality machinimas, each telling a child’s story. Each will stand alone, be commentary, or be embedded in a larger story or multimedia presentation. They will be viewable online and marketed to youth via a class-created, interactive phone app. All our techniques, digital resources and what we learn will be shared with other newsrooms and universities.

How will you know if it worked or not?

Our success will have:

  1. Amplified the voices of marginalized youth with innovative technology.
  2. Broadcast their voices to audiences via apps.
  3. Allowed kids to participate in telling their life story.
  4. Gathered a collaborative, interdisciplinary cohort of students, professionals, technologists and researchers who created and broadcast an innovative, immersive form of journalism, while teaching each other new technology for storytelling.
  5. Implemented OpenSimulator virtual world software, demonstrating its practicality for collaborative projects.
  6. Built accessible apps.
  7. Disseminated findings to universities and news entities.
  8. Forged relationships on campus, advancing our teaching, research, service and long-term sustainability missions.

How is this project unique and innovative?

Juvenile justice systems want to protect the confidentiality of children in their care, to ensure they become rehabilitated and move on with their lives. No one argues with that. However, the system uses confidentiality to cover up many travesties that happen behind closed doors. We do not want a juvenile justice system that hides abuse or victimizes youth. Our students and other project members must tread this delicate balance. This experiment will demonstrate that we have found that balance via new ways of collaborative storytelling and news feature production in a virtual world medium. By using avatars, we can provide children the anonymity they deserve, but make their stories come alive in virtual world scenes they help design.

Of course, we will do journalistic due diligence just as we did in a past experiment we conducted in cartoon journalism storytelling. The story and production templates we will produce will provide legal, non-exploitive pathways to ensure that marginalized youth in our communities are able to share their stories. They will participate in the creative process of developing their personal immersive virtual world scene and telling their own story in a safe, anonymous place.

The innovative technology and storytelling techniques available in virtual worlds will ensure the children truly reach their deeper issues, producing stories that destroy stereotypes and go beyond glib or clichéd. And sharing these machinima stories via custom, interactive phone apps will begin the process of destroying these stereotypes for our audiences.

What technology platforms will you use?

There are three technology platforms at the core of this immersive journalism storytelling machinima experiment:

  • OpenSimulator is an open source multi-platform, multi-user 3D application server we will be using to create the interactive virtual world scenes for each story. In future experiments, people can be allowed to create their own personal avatar and tour the story scenarios, interacting with scripted character bots from the story while listening to the story narration; and
  • Firestorm Viewer an open source viewer software for users’ avatars to enter OpenSimulator virtual worlds. Both will be used to develop the player avatars, bots, scripted objects and scenes used in the machinima filming; and
  • Mobile web app with adaptive, cross platform, and user interface. The mobile web design will utilize HTML5 and CSS3 technologies with native app conversion tools like phone gap.

How might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

This project will fully open the newsroom to students from varying disciplines and turn it into a beehive of student activities with more interdisciplinary classes offered in the newsroom’s state of the art conference/classroom while advancing the teaching hospital model. Plus it will forge more joint experimental and app development work via our newsroom, the Department of Communication and the Mobile App Development (MAD) Center, all right here on our campus. Forging that long-term relationship advances the possibility of adding to our newsroom’s sustainability by developing commercially viable apps. Of course, sustainability is primary to our Center for Sustainable Journalism’s mission, which hosts the

What could go wrong?

From working on multi-disciplinary projects in the past, we know it is often difficult to get students out of their silos and to have experts from different areas work together. To help soften the blow and make the process a little smoother, Tim Hedeen from Conflict Management will be brought in early to help everyone with team building skills. The next hurdle will be getting access to the juvenile justice systems and the kids themselves. We believe we can overcome these issues because we have strong connections with Judge Steve Teske, a progressive thought-leader on juvenile justice issues, who has provided our professional journalists access when others have denied it.

Finally, can we build an interesting, appealing VW environment and the right distribution app; and if so, can we get the marginalized youth to use it and become engaged in this project? Working with students and professionals in the conflict management track, who often work with troubled youth, will give our journalists and technologists insights on best practice approaches. We know it is okay to fail, but frankly we aim to succeed or adapt to get the best outcome possible. No matter the outcome this will be a formative experience for our students by meshing social justice, communication and technology. Lessons learned by for students will endure forever.

Read the original grant award here and see all 11 winners of the 2015 grants here.

The goal of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education is to hack the journalism curriculum. This ongoing grant fund supports universities to partner with local news organizations. Learn more about the program.