Virtual Reality: Ethics Questions in the Real World of Journalism

By Laurence Ivil

Can I play with your daily reality? Can I immerse myself in your own personal space? Can I journey through the salt mines of the Central African Republic from the comfort of my own home?

Well, if I peer through my Virtual Reality headset, and proceed to move my head to the left, and then to the right, I may look mildly ridiculous, but the answer to these questions is, unequivocally, yes I can.

What we’re talking about here is often described as “dynamic storytelling” within the media industry. For most, the terms Virtual or Augmented Reality will be more familiar.

In newsrooms and out in the field, Virtual Reality use is on the rise. But, questions around its use in certain situations remain. What prevents this medium from becoming what the U.S. journalist Sydney Fussell once described as “elaborate armchair tourism” or, even more critically, “poverty porn?” For international newsrooms sending reporters to developing countries, this may be a particularly important question to address.

The rise of Virtual Reality stories

Virtual Reality is a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment.

The technology has undoubtedly entered mainstream journalistic storytelling spaces, and it’s easy to see why. In a recent Tow Center for Digital Journalism report, researchers hypothesized “that virtual reality treatments, be they immersive or non-immersive, will have greater impact over a longer period of time than text, and lead to a higher likelihood of behavioral change and impact on the user as a result.”

The results of the study were not conclusive, but do suggest an increase in both audience engagement and impact when viewing Virtual Reality stories compared to traditional text-based reportage.

This is, of course, good news for media outlets that have reached the same conclusion. The likes of Vice, the New York Times, PBS’s Frontline, Al Jazeera, and a number of independent and freelance journalists are all experimenting with Virtual Reality in the hope that a cinematic experience yields deeper, more immersive news stories that connect audiences, both old and new, to their subjects.

A number of outlets have now established specialist digital experimentation units and delivered compelling news stories as a result. Al Jazeera’s immersive media studio Contrast VR has transported viewers into the realities of bombing campaigns in Yemen and allowed viewers to follow Rohingya refugees who flee persecution in Myanmar. The New York Times has enabled viewers to experience firsthand the battles Iraqi forces endured to retake the important strategic city of Falluja from ISIS.

Ethical challenges

With the use of VR technologies and a focus on immersive storytelling, a number of fresh ethical challenges have emerged.

Firstly, media practitioners seem to be largely focusing their attentions on the potential impact Virtual Reality has on users. The Tow Center report contends that “ethical questions” remain about “user-aversion levels” and “the extent to which users should be shielded from potentially traumatic or upsetting content.” VR stories, when done well, play powerfully upon our emotions. A viewer who bears witness to a VR iteration of an atrocity will likely react as any witness might, perhaps with outrage and sadness, even though they aren’t actually present.

Secondly, the implicit realism and a “heightened sense of proximity to the focal point of a story” can also have adverse effects. “Without any of the typical sensitivities one would normally be mindful of (VR) can have an unintended, oppositional effect: viewers are immersed, but the characters whose perspective they are supposed to be sharing are excluded,” the report notes.

Excluding subjects from the narrative is further exacerbated by certain technological divides. The potential inequality of access for the subjects of Virtual Reality stories is a point of concern that Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the Miami Law School, covers in her essay, “The Desert of the Unreal: Inequality in Virtual and Augmented Reality.” She writes, “it is important to bear in mind that even cheaper versions of VR/AR technology will be inaccessible for much of the world’s population, especially outside of the United States.” For communities in developing countries, connectivity is also a challenge.

Franks continues, “the world we live in is structured by inequality: of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, disability, and more. But for such technologies to be truly innovative, they must move us beyond our current limitations and prejudices.”

What can be done to overcome these challenges?

Earlier this year, in a discussion at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, panelists discussed the measures they take to confront ethical issues that arise when using 360 or VR to tell stories in developing countries.

Viktorija Mickute, a producer at Al Jazeera’s Contrast VR addressed the importance of additional lines of communication. “Our job requires a lot of explanation. Explaining to the characters and the people who are around. If someone asks, ‘what is this medium?’ ‘How is this being done?’ We definitely take time to explain how this works and how they will appear in this film.”

Media practitioners, journalists and technologists often wrap excitable conversations about Virtual Reality in the language of experimentation and technological progress. Yet, there are limited examples of thoughtful discussions around the ethical, real-world consequences of Virtual Reality use.

“It should be used to better understand how people survive, and better understand what issues are, how people are struggling and how people are finding solutions to deal with those issues,” Mickute continued.    

It is difficult to offer a solution to the reality that access to Virtual Reality technology is not equal across the globe. Contrast VR have now begun to experiment with pop-up screenings of VR films to bring the content back to audiences in the countries where they film.

If the worlds created and documented by VR/ AR tend to replicate the unequal world we all already live in, as Franks suggests, will more media practitioners seek to address this in the future? For Mickute, the responsibility is clear: “we have to be very mindful how we use this medium. It’s very powerful, but it has to be used correctly.”

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