The use of virtual reality in journalism, often referred to as immersive journalism, is one of the latest innovations in the field of journalism and shows a lot of potential, both good and bad.
Before we begin to discuss the aspects of immersive journalism, it is a good idea to have a solid grasp on just what is meant by virtual reality in relation to journalism. When some people think of virtual reality, they primarily think of video games and feeling like you are in a different world, with control over your actions. While this certainly is a part of virtual reality, it is not often used in immersive journalism.
Instead, immersive journalism often refers to the kind of virtually reality which is either a simulation of past events or an actual video of them, taken with a 360 degree camera. This mean that while the viewer certainly has the potential to feel like they are actual there, experiencing the event, they have no control of the camera or what happens within that world.
The person who was able to get immersive journalism into the eyes of the public was Nonny de le Peña. Her goal was to “present you a story that you remember with your entire body and not just with your mind.” After some road blocks, she was able to make a film, titled “Hunger in Los Angeles” which started the movement if immersive journalism.
One thing immersive journalism is able to do is to make people react not only mentally or emotionally, but physically to a piece. When viewing a story through the lens of virtual reality, often people, regardless of their knowledge of not being in the situation themselves, cannot help but reach out to try aiding the people in the piece. It is common for people to shudder, jump or reach their hands out like when someone pulls out a gun in virtual reality.
This is because virtual reality is able to temporarily trick the viewer into thinking they are part of the situation themselves. It is able to pull you into a situation so easily and convincingly because, unlike other forms of journalism or entertainment, it is something you cannot simply look away from. When you turn your head, you are still there. You are still a part of that world and the only way to not see it is to close your eyes or take off your VR equipment.
This creates possibilities beyond anything we have imagined before the invention of virtual reality, and can affect journalism in many significant ways. The main goal of immersive journalism is to show a viewer what it is like to be in a certain situation, and is also often to evoke a sympathetic or empathetic response. This, of course, is very effective when the viewers feel as though they are in a situation they are watching.
Of course, this comes with ethical dilemmas in the same way many new strides in technology do. The ethics of immersive journalism can be questionable at times, to say the least. This is for similar reasons to any other form of journalism, with the primary focus being the strong possibility for bias and influence based on said bias.
If a journalist went into a field they were going to cover using virtual reality, all they have to do is pick out the perfect place to set up their equipment and start recording. It can be easy to focus on, say, one small area of a city or even country and use the images captured to invoke extreme emotional reaction from viewers. When someone sees something particularly wrong or disturbing in virtual reality, they are more likely to have a strong reaction, and are more likely to become blind to the inherent bias within any given piece.
This would be bad for everyone, as the potential to convince people that a person, people or a place is bad and needs to be dealt with. Imagine this you live in Michigan and someone takes a virtual reality video of a gang related shootout that happened in the state of Michigan. Then imagine them putting out that video with a title like “Gang Violence Continues to Plague the Streets of Michigan.” The video gains popularity and because of the disturbing nature, people throughout the country, and even people throughout Michigan, start directly associating the entire state with gang violence. This is the level of influence immersive journalism has the potential for.
Another issue that often comes up is how far is too far when it comes to immersive journalism. Certainly a virtual reality story on swimming with whales is relatively harmless, even if it can cause the acquisition of false memories. Such a piece, however, is rarely what is covered in the realm of journalism.
So where is the line? Do we draw it when someone pulls a gun in a video? What about when someone actually gets shot? Do we actually go as far as to show an atrocity such as a massacre or a building on fire with burning bodies visible? Some believe such a thing may be too disturbing to show people through a medium such as virtual reality.
Another issue, though not necessarily an ethical one, is the lack of access to such an advanced technology. Could immersive journalism really be effective in a world where very few people have access to VR glasses, goggles or other viewing tools? The New York Times has taken multiple strides to give people access to virtual reality. Even with these strides, most people do not have easy access to virtual reality, or at least they don’t know they do. Even those who do know they have access to virtual reality can’t always afford it, especially if they want one of the better systems out there.
So, virtual reality likely has a long way to go. When it is cheaper and more plentiful, journalists will be able to take advantage of the medium much more easily and get their stories out to more people who will be more heavily affected by them. Though with news being said to make people more depressed, who is to say whether easy access to such a resource would actually be a good thing.
The possibilities for a positive medium are plentiful, though. It can allow people to experience situations they never would be able to otherwise. The ability of people all over the world to experience completely news situation, even within the comfort of their own home, could certainly be a step forward in our understanding of each other if put in the right hands. In the future, we may even be able to attend events we could never physically be there for, or events see things live as if they were happening right in front of us. This could mean attending a concert you couldn’t make it to, which raises its own ethical dilemmas, or even experiencing a national tragedy while being thousands of miles away.
One thing is certain: virtual reality is here and it is here to stay. From here on out it will only grow and we will, sooner or later, need to learn to adapt to a world where immersive journalism and entertainment are a part of our daily lives.