Virtual Reality Journalism

Journalism is largely defined by which medium it uses to convey its message. The last hundred years, it has moved from medium to medium: from text to radio, and further from photographs to video. With each new medium the fidelity of the message it is providing is steadily increasing. This is perhaps especially clear now with the use of Virtual Reality (VR) technologies for journalistic purposes. By using 360° stereoscopic (3D) cameras, we are getting very close to capturing subjective realities at given points in spacetime.

The Ultimate Empathy Machine

In his Ted Talk, Chris Milk describes the potential of VR for creating “the ultimate empathy machine”, which later has been the subject for extensive debate. The message is that we may be more empathetic towards others if we can “literally”, or at least virtually, view the situation through their eyes. Many journalistic projects have focused on refugees or war zones, such as the stories “Fight for Fallujah” and “The Displaced“. In these stories, the camera works as the eyes of the observer, as the screen in the VR goggles is mounted directly on to the eyes. The user is presented to the story through a first person perspective, and may feel present in the story as if he or she is actually being transferred to the environment.  This presence to the stories, and the following perceived realism, is what is believed to be able to increase empathy in the viewers. Of this reason also, Google News Lab’s Ethnographic Study on Immersive Journalism  describes VR news as more fit for the term “storyliving” rather than “storytelling”, indicating that the user feels a part of the story that is being conveyed.

‘See for yourself’: Is the NYT VR pitching their VR production by indicating that you can see the situation yourself, instead of adhering to the mediated version by a journalist who’ve been there?

Critics of VR as the “ultimate empathy machine”, or as capable of delivering “storyliving”, say that you can not possibly know how it is to be in a refugee camp while lying on the couch a friday evening with your VR goggles and a glass of wine. And, of course, you can not. It may, however, prove to be a more empathetic instrument than a regular video as it may seem more real and thus affect us differently.  It is no wonder that it may seem more ‘real’, when it is presented in the ‘format of reality’. Some do agree, however, and believe that it may have the power to make viewers more empathetic – nevertheless, they think that it may be unethical to use it as such. Should journalists have this power, to distribute realities to news consumers, and by new technologies we are not used to, affect people this strongly? These critics may be afraid of the “brainwashing” potential of the technology. It is easier to distance one self from a 21 inch screen than it is to distance yourself from an encompassing, immersive virtual reality you inhibit. Perhaps the most crucial question is whether it is brainwashing if what you are showed in fact is real?

Fake News

This brings us to another point of VR Journalism: how hard it is to manipulate the content. The journalist can not hide behind the camera. There is no artificial lighting or too narrow segment of the shot. The camera shoots in 360° horizontally and vertically — it is a totally observant witness at that given space and time.  In a sense, news in 360° is far less directed than in traditional flat videos: the viewer chooses which part of the video he or she wants to see. Naturally, the journalist is still an active role which chooses where to shoot, and does the final edit, however, it is a great shift from traditonal video footage. As we all know, during the last few years the concept of ‘fake news’ and mistrust in the media has arisen. The transparency that shooting with 360° 3D offers may help combat this. Perhaps also Journalism has to adapt to these changes, and rather deliver (immersive) content on which its readers themselves can decide and conclude upon. Euronews, one of the largest European news agencies, argues that this is why they have produced several 360° videos each week for now two years. In the VR session of the Digital World Conference in 2016, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Platforms, Duncan Hooper, stated they “want[ed] to let [the users] make their own decisions, not tell them what they should be watching, not to tell them what they should be thinking”.

It is, however, rather naïve to believe that immersive content alone can deliver objective truths — no matter how close the images correspond to reality. When the videos themselves lack in clear message or narrative, it is natural to imagine how they may rather be used as building bricks for constituting a narrative elsewhere. Besides, imagine the concrete example of the news coverage of the Israel and Palestine conflict. In this case, we may ask whether the journalist will choose to show immersive footage of a knife attack in Jerusalem, or deadly shots by the border patrol in Gaza? Both would be correct to show, but by this example, we see that to a certain extent, in the problem of news objectivity and fake news, it is not a problem of facts vs. non-facts; but which facts are focussed on. Immersive Journalism is no silver bullet in this regard, however, that is not to say that it may not find a natural place in news coverage. 

VR Journalism at the University of Bergen

During the spring of 2018, I taught 20 undergraduate students in VR Programming, 360° video shooting- and editing and photogrammetry. The aim was that the students should be able to create their own prototype delivering Immersive Journalism. As the rules and practices within the new concept is not very well established, we did not teach the students exactly to solve their tasks, but rather how to experiment with the novelties of the medium and try to innovate and create new genres. This is often called ‘Innovation Pedagogy’. The end result have been four brilliant prototypes, that was presented at the Norwegian Centre of Excellence (NCE) Media’s media lab in Media City Bergen. We discuss two of these here. Interested in the other two? These are mentioned in an entry where we go more in depth, philosophically, on the concept of Experience Machines.

Drug addict
The first of the VR experiences is called “Narkomani” which from Norwegian can roughly be translated to “Drug addict”. The aim of the production is to see the world from the point of view of a drug addict, perhaps living on the streets in Bergen. How is it to be frowned upon, walking around the streets, uneasy to get the next shot of dope? As my colleague Nyre stated in the introduction the projects, this VR project features “not a first person shooter from Los Angeles, but first person social realism from Bergen”.

Schizophrenia
The second of the VR experiences, attempts to create understanding on how it is to live with schizophrenia. In the experience, the user perceives visual hallucinations, and audio of up to five different personalities. The concept is brilliantly illustrated by the poster, and the experience tries to portrait a subjective reality falling apart.

Conclusion

Journalism through the medium/technology of VR has great potential. Immersive Journalism is still in its infancy, but the projects done so far shows promising. Much will depend on VR goggles entering into people’s homes, as with any other technology. For insights into where we are in the terrain of VR technology in 2018 — take a look at our entry discussing the History of Virtual Reality.

Literature list


Are you interested in more reading on this subject?

This executive summary on “Virtual Reality Journalism” by Owen & Pitt at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism is one of the first reports on VR Journalism.

Further, the report by Doyle, Gelman & Gill at the Knight Foundation is a good background read.

Finally, the Reuters report by Zillah Watson is more recent and sheds light on the more current situation of the medium for journalistic purposes. This report  illuminates a change we have seen recently, with the use of consumer/”prosumer” cameras for easier production by newsroom. This will definitely turn out, as with traditional cameras, to be a prerequisite for the adoption of this medium across Journalism as whole. When it is easier to produce content in 360° video, more newsrooms will do it.

As the reports by The Knight Foundation, The Tow Center, and further Sirkunnen et. al indicate, Immersive Journalism has not been so prevalent in less-affluent media houses. We may know of VR stories such as 6×9 by The Guardian, but have not necessarily heard of any from our local newspaper. This may change in the near future due to better consumer products.