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Journalism’s New Reality

Jeremy Bailenson (not shown) demonstrates a virtual reality headset with help from host Baratunde Thurston at TED Talks Live - Science and Wonder, November 5-6, 2015, The Town Hall, New York, NY. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Technology has irrefutably and dramatically transformed the journalism industry in the past 20 years. Access to media has evolved from local newspapers delivered daily to front doors to retrieving the latest news with a few taps on the keyboard, through news sites and social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. Minutes after an earthquake strikes in Japan, a person in New York can receive a notification about the disaster, and with Facebook’s Safety Check, be informed about the safety of their friends and family. The speed by which news is disseminated, and the way in which the public accesses that information has been revolutionized by the digital age. As of last year, 40 percent of Americans report getting their news from social media platforms. With Twitter, commenting, and streaming, the audience is ever more integrated into the world of reporting. Half of social network users have shared news stories or images online, sometimes even covering breaking news themselves through photos and videos. Digital media has stimulated an unprecedented swift and widespread diffusion of journalistic material, but this ubiquitous dissemination of the news has also wearied audiences. The average visit to The New York Times website lasts only 4.6 minutes. Information is swiftly and easily obtained, and just as easily discarded.

The fundamental issue of journalism today is no longer how to notify readers about serious events, but rather how to reach an audience jaded by a bombardment of images and information and inspire them to contemplate the news with empathy and understanding. And this issue, may, too, be solved by technology.

“What if I could present you with a story that you could remember with your whole body and not just your mind?” asked Nonny de la Peña at a TED talk she gave last year. De la Peña, nicknamed the “godmother of virtual reality”, has pioneered the use of virtual reality technology to create a new form of immersive journalism. She uses architectural blueprints, recorded audio, and journalistic footage to reproduce scenes with which the audience can interact. By putting on a virtual reality headset, a news story becomes visceral. A person can open their eyes and find themselves thrust into the scene of a sudden bombing in Syria or in a camp for child refugees. The reader simultaneously becomes audience, witness, and sometimes even victim. De la Peña’s most recent work Kiya, which premiered at Sundance last month, depicts an environment based on photos and the audio from a 911 call that captures a deadly incident of domestic violence. The disturbing piece makes the viewer a powerless witness to a violent crime, imposing a new perspective and thereby evoking a surge of empathy. This immersive journalism allows the reader to connect to the event as if they were actually there, turning news stories into personal experiences.

But what are the moral and ethical consequences of a journalistic tool that manufactures personal experiences and seeks to conjure up deep emotions? Virtual reality may solve the empathy problems of today, but it lacks credibility as a journalistic medium if it is focused only on emotions and not on properly informing the public.

The prevailing goal of virtual reality journalism is precisely to surmount the limited perspective of individual lives, and thus generate empathy by recreating the experiences of others. The visceral aspect of VR allows people to essentially live others’ experiences as if they were their own. People will no longer have to merely learn about events; they can be in them. Virtual reality journalism hijacks the sensory system, blocking out all other sights and sounds and recreating a space to fool the audience’s brains into believing that they are actually witnessing an incident. Virtual reality technology in essence becomes a visceral empathy generator: “inspire to care” is Nonny de la Peña’s motto. And she’s been incredibly successful – viewers often try to reach out and help during the piece, and leave deeply shaken or even sobbing. But the empathy doesn’t stop there. Her films have propelled significant social action, with one piece about Syrian refugee camps raising over $20,000 in donations. The ability of this technology to command the presence of the viewer makes it incredibly effective at leaving lasting moral impressions and changing people’s attitudes and behaviors towards certain policies.

However, as we rush headfirst into a world of visceral empathy generators, we should consider the ethical complications it entails. If the journalistic medium becomes so empathetically powerful as to drive viewers to tears and donations, it wields an immense power that may be manipulated. Portrayals of events can inspire hatred against others just as easily as they can inspire sympathy, and the social consequences of hatred may be greater. Xenophobia and racist thought could be easily spurred on by virtual reality technology, merely through the portrayal of acts of violence committed by certain groups of people.

As with all advances in technology, virtual reality journalism requires a new framework of ethics and standards. It changes the rules and the roles for both the journalist and the audience, significantly altering the relationship between the two and giving the journalist much more power and artistic license. An ethical VR piece will require a degree of transparency, disclosing to viewers what elements are based on solid sources and what is founded upon supposition.

As such, there needs to be some standard for the level of authenticity necessary to deem a piece journalistic as opposed to an interpretation of an event. In recreating a scene, the journalist adopts the roles of writer, filmmaker, and producer. The ambiguities of producing a piece make the preservation of impartiality incredibly difficult, especially when witnesses and photographs often paint different and contradicting pictures, and there is the additional difficulty of missing information when going from 2D images to manufacturing 3D spaces. As the journalist assumes more power with VR technology, the audience becomes more easily manipulated. VR’s primary asset of being a bridge to empathy makes it also incredibly easy for the viewer to believe its films as the absolute truth by default, especially as it is difficult to find competing VR accounts of the same event.

Aside from these complications, the most formidable barrier to ethical journalism and credibility facing VR is rooted in its very purpose. The use of virtual reality as an empathy generator naturally conflicts with the aim of journalism to provide impartial information. News is not meant to entertain, but to explain. The overriding emphasis of virtual reality on making the audience feel an emotional attachment distracts from telling the overarching story. The New York Times’ first experiment with virtual reality, The Displaced, gets caught in this very conflict. The film tells the story of displacement through the lives of three refugee children, Hana, Oleg, and Chuol, allowing the audience to follow them as they explore the ruins of their demolished school, pick up sacks of food helicoptered into an empty field, and labor on farms to support their family. The emotional pull of the film is incredibly powerful, especially as the children tell you their story while you work, bike, and play with them. As successful as The Displaced is in immersing the audience in the world of the refugee crisis, it lacks in explaining the historical and political context of the story. We hear personal stories about lost homes and lost family members, but not the larger narrative of violent political turmoil and sprawling refugee camps. The film is a compelling account of the lives of three refugee children and leaves a deep emotional impression, but it is not a great journalistic piece, failing to explain the context or the roots of the crisis.

The New York Times’ piece only reveals the surface of a deeper problem with virtual reality. If the aim of immersive journalism is to generate empathy as opposed to simply disseminating information, producers will not only fail to explain the greater context of the story, but will always be more inclined to tell only one side of the story. The incentives of VR are skewed to drive filming and production in a way that will urge viewers to feel empathetic towards one party, siding with them against others. Transparency and authenticity disclosure will not change an underlying drive towards bias. As long as producers use it as an empathy machine, immersive journalism will always lack a certain level of journalistic credibility. This technology may be of great use for social activism or bringing attention to a certain cause, but a focus on generating empathy prevents VR from the impartiality and integrity that journalism commands. Journalism is about informing the public so they can make the best possible decisions, and that requires being honest to the truth, above and beyond telling a good story or evoking strong emotions. Only when VR devotes itself to that loftier goal and sees itself as more than just an empathy generator will it be considered a legitimate journalistic tool.


About the Author

Katherine Chin '19 is a Culture Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.