Leader in Innovative Storytelling


Francesca Panetta is a leader in pro-social, experimental and immersive storytelling. 

Working as a director, artist, curator and commissioner she investigates how pushing established forms and using emerging technologies can have a greater impact on audiences.

For over 20 years she has pioneered new types of documentary and journalism in news rooms and universities including the BBC, Guardian and MIT. She led the Guardian’s podcast team in its early days, set up the immersive features team and the virtual reality studio as Executive Editor. At Sheffield DocFest, she currently curates the Alternate Realities exhibition and summit. 

Francesca’s work as artist and director, is internationally acclaimed. As Creative Director at MIT, her machine learning work on misinformation, In Event of Moon Disaster won an Emmy for best Interactive Documentary. The VR pieces she has directed have been shown at film festivals from Cannes to Sundance, and are used as policy tools taken by advocates and her work 6×9 was exhibited in the White House. 

Her mission is to instigate change on the most important topics of the day: climate catastrophe, polarisation, racial justice, criminal justice, migration and inequality. The method serves the story – whether audio, film, virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, social media or installation – the aim is to find the most effective means to connect with the audience. 

“How we feel matters more than we think [it does]” said Ezra Klein in his book on polarisation. Merely laying out the facts and bare truth isn’t enough. Strong, visceral storytelling is more likely to break through. By using creativity with rigorous research and journalism, storytellers can contribute to the change the world needs right now.


Francesca Panetta is Curator of Sheffield DocFest’s Alternate Realities programme – the festival’s showcase exhibition and programme for immersive documentary and non-fiction forms including virtual (VR), augmented (AR), mixed reality (MR), 360° video, games, web docs, motion comic, moving image/expanded cinema and experiences using artificial intelligence. 

She programmes the public exhibition as well as the day long summit open to public and industry including panels, keynotes and presentations on the state of the immersive and interactive non-fiction industry. 

Sheffield International Documentary Festival

Experimental Storytelling

Technology opens up new possibilities engaging with audiences. Each new platform has its own specific affordances and Francesca spends time experimenting and finding the new storytelling methodologies for each.

Her virtual reality work has explored embodied and first person storytelling, her augmented reality work challenges our perception of place altering it by layering in media, and her AI work investigates synthetic media and the blurring of reality.



Starting her career as a trainee at the BBC, Francesca moved to work at the Guardian for 13 years, She has covered topics across the field from the fast-fashion clothing industry in Bangladesh to the prison system in the US. In 2008, she covered the US election (primaries and general election) in audio for the Guardian.

Human interest stories are Francesca’s speciality. She has the ability to connect with all she interviews: listening carefully, gaining trust and pulling out the stories represents the worlds of her interviewees.

Harvard recognized Francesca as an exceptional journalist in 2018, awarding her a Nieman Fellowship.

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Virtual Reality

As Executive editor, Francesca Panetta led the Guardian’s award-winning in-house Virtual Reality studio from 2016-2018 experimenting with what VR could look like for journalism. Striving to push the boundaries of non-fiction storytelling results the studio the result was an extraordinarily ambitious multi-award winning collection of VR experiences varying in scope and execution.

Some pieces were interactive, using modelled worlds and interactive film. They explore visual aesthetics from lidar scanning to film to illustration. Other works were linear 360 works. The team focused on first person narratives – placing the reader inside the story and exploring what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes.

In October 2017 the Guardian launched its Guardian VR app and sent 100,000 free Google Cardboard headsets away with its Saturday newspaper. In total over 4 million people online accessed the Guardian’s VR and 360 content.

Robert De Niro watches 6x9 at the Tribeca Film Festival

Public Speaking

From Google to MOMA, from the Lincoln Center to Cannes Lions, Francesca delivers keynotes, moderates panels and hosts workshops around the world.

She talks to journalists and editors about innovating in newsrooms, finding new formats for newspapers and broadcasters to find new audiences and experiment in what their output can look like.

At film and documentary festivals, Panetta talks about what the future for these forms can take and the practicalities of making them – from storyboarding, to work flow to fundraising.

For audio makers, Panetta hosts workshops and talks to discuss innovation in sound – from Audio AR, to Voice, to podcasting she has been asked to talk about the Future of Radio for over a decade.



Creative Audio

Francesca Panetta is a multi-award winning radio producer and sound artist. She’s known for her richly layered through -composed sound work and experimental formats.

Francesca started her career as a trainee sound assistant at the BBC. Merging her classical music training with her love for feature making and technology focused her early career in experimental radio.

She moved from radio to podcasting when iPods had just been created in 2006 moving from the BBC to the Guardian to work as an audio producer launching shows on British Islamic Life, Politics and Culture. As Head of Audio she led the podcast team pushing the department to explore what audio could look like as the podcast form developed through the decade.

Alongside her Guardian work, she launched her own podcast the Hackney Podcast, drew a global audience and won awards around the world. Now she runs a production company with Lucy Greenwell focusing on Audio AR and radio art.

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Interactive Documentaries

As Special Projects Editor at the Guardian, Francesca was tasked with experimenting in new forms of storytelling.

In 2013 she launched Firestorm, a Guardian interactive magazine piece which explored the onslaught and aftermath of a devastating brush fire in Tasmania. The team took a now-iconic photograph of the Holmes family huddling under a jetty as a starting point. Firestorm follows the Holmeses through their fight to survive, combining video, interactive graphics, ambient sound, and magazine-style copy into an interactive experience unified by downward scrolling.

As special projects editor she continued to direct projects such as the Shirt on Your Back an interactive documentary about the dangers of the global garment industry, Olympic Bodies profiling 31 of Britain’s 2012 Olympians, and an interactive and global guide to the First World War.

In 2014, she partnered the Guardian with the National Film Board of Canada to direct Seven Digital Deadly Sins.


Audio AR

In 2010, Francesca began to experiment with what technology could mean for audio with a series of Audio AR apps which triggered stories dependent on your location using GPS data.

Setting up Hackney Productions, she launched Hackney Hear in 2011which won awards around the world. Commissioned by the Arts Council of England, it portrayed a rapidly changing area of East London through oral history stories, interviews and commissioned poems, short stories and music layered and woven together over a square mile of London Fields and Broadway Market.

She then launched Phantom Production to make a series of Location based audio apps including Soho Stories, for the National Trust, Diamond Street, for writer Rachel Lichenstein set in the historic jewellery quarter of Hatton Gardens and Boardwalk Stories from Sandy, a walking tour ap produced by Panetta and Benjamen Walker and Francesca Panetta telling the stories of people who were affected by Superstorm Sandy.



  • (2021) The Television Academy Emmy Awards
  • (2020) Anima, Belgium
  • (2019) Thessaloniki International Film Festival, Greece
  • (2019) VR Now, Germany
  • (2019) Mozilla Creative Media Award, US
  • (2018) Social Impact Media Awards Awards, US
  • (2018) Raindance Award, UK
  • (2018) WAN-IFRA, Europe
  • (2018) VR Expo, US (x5)
  • (2018) Information is Beautiful, UK
  • (2017) Raindance Award, UK
  • (2017) World Digital Media Award for Best use of online video, Germany
  • (2017) Lovie, Europe
  • (2017) Gold People’s Lovie for Virtual Reality, Europe
  • (2017) 13th Biennial of New Media Arts, Chile
  • (2017) Halo Award, North America
  • (2017) SND Digital Winner , UK
  • (2016) CINE Golden Eagle, US
  • (2016) Raindance Best Virtual Reality Film, UK
  • (2016) Association of International Broadcasting, UK
  • (2016) Lovies Bronze for Best Internet Video, UK
  • (2016) British Arrows Craft, UK
  • (2016) British Press Awards, UK
  • (2016) Amnesty Media Award, UK
  • (2016) British Journalism Award, UK
  • (2016) Chicken and Egg Grant, US
  • (2016) Tribeca New Media Award, UK
  • (2016) Whickers Award (Runner up), UK
  • (2015) European Media Award , Europe
  • (2015) ONA, US
  • (2015) Webby Award, US (x5)
  • (2015) Artangel Open Finalist, UK
  • (2014) Amnesty Media Award, UK
  • (2013) Tech City Insider, UK
  • (2013) Prix Europa, Germany
  • (2013) BBC Drama Awards, UK
  • (2013) Walkey Award, Australia
  • (2012) New York Radio Festival Awards, US
  • (2012) New York Radio Festival Awards, US
  • (2012) Sony Radio Academy Award, UK
  • (2011) TecCon Innovation Award, UK
  • (2011) Sony Radio Academy Award, UK
  • (2011) Technical Innovations Award (Nomination), UK
  • (2011) Arts Council Grants for the Arts, UK
  • (2010) Sony Radio Academy Award, UK
  • (2010) Radio Academy Award, UK
  • (2010) Radio Academy Award, UK
  • (2008) Sony Radio Academy Award, UK
  • (2007) Associate of Online Publishers, UK