The award-winning technology reporter wants to use virtual reality to help restore trust in journalism.
Eva Wolfangel has heard the word “no” a lot in her professional life. One of the first times came two decades ago, when she told the Career Office at Humboldt University of Berlin that she would be going into journalism. They recommended she find a more gescheit, or sensible, job. Wolfangel ignored their advice, going on to write about technology for major German-language newspapers and magazines and becoming the European Science Writer of the Year in 2018.
Wolfangel uses creative writing to explore technology; she’s been praised for her ability to write technology stories that touch readers. During her nine months as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, however, she is flipping the narrative: She’s finding out ways that technology can be used to help journalists tell their stories.
After she graduated from Humboldt in 2002, Wolfangel spent three years writing for a small, local newspaper, but she soon saw that there weren’t enough possibilities for her there. “No chance to write big articles, find my own topics,” she says. “That’s why I became a freelancer.”
The first few years that followed were brutal. “I had so many ideas for great stories; and I wrote emails and emails and didn’t get answers,” she says. The more times she heard “no,” the more she dug in. Her persistence paid off, almost too well: “Now I have to learn to say no and it’s a real pity,” she laments.
It was as a freelancer that Wolfangel began combining creative writing and tech journalism, and once again she heard “no.” “Many people told me it’s not possible to combine it, because science is more facts, you don’t have these characters,” she says. But Wolfangel discovered that she wasn’t the only one interested in the people behind tech; readers also gravitated toward her pieces. “It is more work, but for me it’s the best way to reach the broader audience, because people like to read stories.”
Wolfangel’s reporting has taken her to Japan, where she wore robotic arms she controlled with her feet, and to Tel-Aviv, where she visited an Israeli startup that uses biometric footprints to catch bank hackers. These experiences led her to ask what tech could do for journalism. “Science journalists often deal with topics you don’t see in the real world, like quantum physics, or stars, or your brain,” she says. It’s harder to understand topics you cannot see and interact with. A solution Wolfangel is currently exploring is a virtual reality (VR) meeting space where audiences can, for instance, interact with a VR brain.
As Wolfangel sees it, a VR meeting space wouldn’t just make science easier to understand, it would also help deal with the distrust problem the media is facing. “[In a VR meeting space] our readers can see how we work and accompany us to an interview,” she says.
At MIT, Wolfangel has been taking a broad look at how VR meeting spaces might be used, talking with learning theorists, scientists, sociologists, and education psychologists to find out if it is the right way to address the distrust problem. She takes an equally broad view of technological innovations in her writing, where she explores how innovations can change society, but also how they could go wrong. “But I don’t ask this because I want to say ‘don’t do it, watch out, this technology is dangerous,’” Wolfangel explains.
Instead she hopes to inform the broader public about the discussions around an innovation so that society can decide what it wants out of technology. “If we really discuss this as a whole society, or with as many people as we can, it will be a good future.”
This is the eighth in a series of profiles of the 2019-20 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.