An Evocative Medium’s Acceptance in the World of Journalism

Two years ago Mark Zuckerberg announced the purchase of a start-up named Oculus VR, a virtual reality company that would eventually enable Facebook users to “[enjoy] a courtside seat at a game, [study] in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or [consult] with a doctor face-to-face”, all just by  “putting on goggles in [one’s] home.”  However, despite the futuristic tone in Zuckerberg’s gushing about virtual reality, such technology is very much in the present.

Along with Oculus VR, industry giants like Google and Samsung are launching products that attempt to get hold of the market of accessible virtual reality for the public. What makes virtual reality unique from any other 3-D image or film is that it enables the viewer to look in whichever direction they desire. Such a feature is enabled by sensors in a VR headset that shift a film frame in sync with the viewer’s head. As for the astounding quality of the pictorial illusion of depth, virtual reality employs software that ‘stitches’ various images together. This method mimics the process by which the different perceptions of distance by both eyes are synthesized to create an image that has an illusion of depth.

Although VR’s value in entertainment and social media is evident, journalists have also begun to experiment with it. The New York Times, for instance, sent Google Cardboards (VR headsets) to 1 million of its subscribers last year in order to disseminate a VR film about children refugees from Ukraine, South Sudan and Syria. The film begins with a shot of a young Oleg, a Ukrainian refugee, scribbling on a blackboard. The walls in front of him are torn, and wood and cement remains pile up behind him. As one chooses to turn away from Oleg one is faced by a classroom turned upside down as if ravaged by a powerful earthquake.

All throughout the film one continues to hear Oleg’s chalk tapping on the blackboard as if truly sharing the space with the young boy. A few seconds later the room goes dark and white letters located at the bottom of the screen read out: “Nearly 60 million people around the world have been driven from their homes by war and persecution (…). Half of them are children. This is the story of three of them.” An instant later one is standing on a balcony in Lebanon with Hana, a Syrian refugee. Now one tries to take in her setting, her experience, her reality.

Such ways of narrating a story not only make for a more active viewing experience, but also  introduce a new level of intimacy between the news subject and the viewer. As Nonny de la Peña, innovator of journalistic VR says, one is “put in the middle of a scene” and gets a “whole-body sensation.” Viewers have described the experience as “powerful”, “absolutely believable”, and for some stories, “quite frightening.” One subject who watched a partly graphics-enhanced story said that virtual reality could “create better understanding and empathy for the global citizens.” Such a question of empathy has been explored by the United Nations as they seek to maximize donations to various causes.

For instance, when the UN showed a VR film about a Syrian refugee living in Jordan at one of their conferences, they raised 3.8 billion USD,  1.2 billion more than the year before. And when UNICEF showed the same film to random passers-by in 60 different countries, donation rates nearly doubled.

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Margaret-Chan-Testing-Virtual-Reality
World Health Organization director Margaret Chan and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon testing virtual reality.

Although such results prove virtual reality to be a positive contribution to the art of storytelling, additional questions about the ethics of journalists in this context have arisen. If virtual reality is unique among other forms of journalism in that it claims to show a hundred percent reality, then how does it admit its journalistic biases or slight deviations from reality? For instance, if a VR filmmaker chooses to film a certain scene, that alone is journalistic bias. However, such a product will still be presented to the audience as pure reality experienced in that place. The shortcomings of any journalistic piece in portraying a certain setting then become hazy and difficult to discern.

To such criticism, Princeton Journalism professor David Kushner says that he believes virtual reality would actually empower viewers in the face of such bias. Having the freedom of “choosing the direction to look at” and thereby to “consume the information [you] want” would make a story more transparent to the audience. Nonetheless innovators in VR journalism have concerns about the responsibilities of the journalist that use such technology. De la Peña, for instance, says that since these stories allow her to “tap into these feelings of empathy,” she has to be “very careful about creating these pieces” and “make sure that these powerful stories are built with integrity.” As ethical guidelines for the use of VR in journalism are developed, the hope is that it will strengthen the viewer-subject connection while maintaining accuracy and truthfulness of portrayals.

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