JOVRNALISM team uses immersive tech to examine the 1992 L.A. Uprising and wins Hearst Journalism Award

The South L.A. intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues was the epicenter of the 1992 civil unrest. Thirty years later, public relations major Myrah Sarwar used 3D-modeling and browser-based virtual reality to re-create the flashpoint where violence and destruction first erupted after the acquittal of the police officers involved in beating Rodney King.

Using a phone, desktop or high-end headset, users can step into history and walk around the intersection while viewing powerful photos captured at the time.

“Myrah produced something I have never seen before: a mixture of journalism, photo exhibition and art gallery — all in web-based VR,” said Robert Hernandez, professor of professional practice.

Produced by Sarwar and the JOVRNALISM student team led by Hernandez, the project is a part of a collection of immersive experiences titled “Reflections of the L.A. Uprising,” which captured first place in the Hearst Journalism Awards Program’s new Multimedia Team Digital News/Enterprise Story Team Competition for 2022–23.  

The series integrates emerging technology such as 360-degree video and AR lenses in Snapchat to cover a wide range of perspectives, including local photographers discussing their most iconic photos of the historic moment and local business owners reflecting on the vacant lots left in the wake of destructive fires.

Sarwar said that, with stories surrounding Florence and Normandie a part of all of the series’ projects, she wanted to create a web VR experience that brought them all together.

“There are already decades of news coverage out there, and my hope was to create something that could supplement that and enhance our understanding of the uprising today,” Sarwar added. “I think my biggest fear was not being able to do it justice, so I feel very privileged to have been trusted with the responsibility of telling these stories from a new perspective.”

Hernandez admitted he was initially nervous, too.

“I wasn’t exactly sure what we’d produce in re-telling this event through new tech, but the students — who weren’t even alive when this all happened — were genuinely thoughtful and creative,” Hernandez said.

Once he was confident they were on the right track, Hernadez approached the Los Angeles Times and PBS-affiliate KCET to be publishing partners. 

“During my pitch meetings with them they were simply blown away with what we were doing,” he said.

The L.A. Times included the entire package produced by the JOVRNALISM team in their commemorative coverage and KCET featured the students’ immersive piece in which historical images are overlaid on present-day 360-degree video.

Randy Vazquez, who worked on the project while a specialized journalism master’s student, said their goal was to connect education and innovation.

“The uprising caught national headlines, but for Southern California natives like myself, they were also a marker in our history,” said Vazquez, who is now a video producer at The Boston Globe. “There is a history in L.A. before the uprising and after it. Personally, it connected me to the stories I would hear growing up about the day's events. Being able to capture these stories and present them to the world in a unique way is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

JOVRNALISM’s winning project was selected from among 69 entries submitted by 42 schools. The award — which includes a $3,000 scholarship — was presented last month at the Intercollegiate Awards Presentation during the National Championships in San Francisco.

The Society of Professional Journalists also recognized “Reflections of the L.A. Uprising” with their national 2022 Mark of Excellence Award for best use of multimedia.

The entire award-winning JOVRNALISM team includes: Sarwar, Vazquez, Marta Hernani Fernandez, Grace Yuan Gao, Halle Hazzard, Rachel Kisela, Hannu Kivimaki, Charisma Madarang, Jesse Mechanic, Lajja Mistry, Jacqueline Pinedo, Sam Schwartz, Mallika Singh, and Vaishnavi Vasudevan.

Since its creation in 2015, JOVRNALISM has been recognized with Webby Awards as well as top prizes from the Online News Association and Los Angeles Press Club, among others.