A devastating hurricane. A major sports event. A refugee camp where human tragedy unfolds. These are all news events covered by journalists in various ways: in print, on the internet, or on TV. However, these three specific events have also had a special type of coverage: in virtual reality.
Virtual Reality and Breaking News: A Paradigm Shift
One of the first attempts to bring major events closer to viewers and make them more relatable took place in 2013, when filmmaker Barbara Allen worked in collaboration with a virtual reality team from Stanford to create a VR presentation about Hurricane Katrina. “…You see, and hear, and feel the human impact of a story. And that’s what I’ve done with Hurricane Katrina,” explained Allen regarding her decision to use innovative technologies for news reporting.
The same rationale was behind the 2015 virtual reality project developed by the United Nations. The organization created a 360-degree video report inside a Syrian refugee camp located in Jordan. The report, “Clouds Over Sidra” was created on the Samsung Gear VR-360 platform and launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, creating a strong impression among its viewers.
Also in 2015, the prestigious publication The New York Times sent 1.2 million Google Cardboard headsets to its subscribers, to mark the launch of its NYTVR virtual reality app.
A Fresh Start: Virtual Reality and the Credibility of News Stories
The state of journalism in the virtual reality era is somewhat dubious. The wave of fake news makes people question and double check every piece of news they read, every link posted on social media, and every video they watch. The possibilities of manipulating still and moving images has rendered photography and film less credible than they used to be.
Virtual reality may be the key element in the journalists’ quest to regain their credibility. This new technology brings a supplementary sense of participation to the viewers’ minds. Putting the audience at the center of events to make them feel like direct participants in events is one of the ways in which virtual reality can repair the broken trust between the general public and mass media.
However, the technology itself will not save the profession. As Scott Mayerowitz, the business editor of Associated Press points out in an AP Insights report, “Just because the storytelling format is unique, it doesn’t mean that we throw away all long-standing reporting methods.”
Challenges for Journalists
Virtual reality will also force practitioners to rethink their role in the ongoing communication flow between news organizations and the general public. When writing a news story, journalists are careful to keep out bias and to present the points of view of all parties involved. When shooting with a VR camera, zooming in and out and cropping and editing images may create bias. What is left out may be unimportant, but it could be an essential element which would change the entire perspective.
There are other ethical challenges, as well. We live in an increasingly violent world, and many news events deal with war, terrorism, and cataclysms. How appropriate is it to put the audience in the middle of scenes of death, gore and other images with an unbearably strong emotional impact?
Tom Kent, President and CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and former Associated Press Standards Editor, has a word of warning for the future use of virtual reality in telling stories of death and devastation. “In traditional media, too, the desire to paint a cause or a person in sympathetic tones can conflict with impartial, hard-headed reporting. But the potential for empathy is even greater in the VR world, since viewers can bond far more easily with a 3D character they’re practically touching,” he states.
Not a Conclusion, but a Cautious Wish
Virtual reality has a huge potential to turn journalism into a more powerful medium for connecting people to stories and increasing the level of general empathy for situations occurring even in the most distant corners of the world. But when it is used inappropriately, it also has the power to desensitize us and make us unfeeling, passive spectators in the human drama.
What the industry needs is to rethink its ethical standards and adapt them to cover all the potential developments virtual reality and other emerging technologies might effect.