Is VR A Threat To Journalism’s Objectivity?

Is VR A Threat To Journalism’s Objectivity?
August 22, 2017

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are game-changers across the media. Both could have substantial implications for the future of news journalism. 

If you're not sure of the difference, put simply, AR layers audio and image enhancements onto an existing reality whereas VR fully simulates an environment.

BBC (Connected Studio), CNN (Virtual Reality Unit)New York Times (NVT VR)Huffington Post and others have been busy experimenting with AR, VR and 360˚ news storytelling for some time. 

The traditional way news organisations work has been challenged by eyewitness journalism, fake news, and the ability of users to customise news preferences through personalisation.

As Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner wrote recently: "We must address the new power dynamics - engaging with people as civic actors, citizens, equals." 

Now virtual technologies could give audiences even more control over the way they consume news.


Will this freedom encourage users to mould stories in a way that reinforces personal prejudices? Perhaps subjectivity will infiltrate news even further?


In a recent research article for Frontiers in Digital Humanities, multimedia journalist and immersive journalism researcher Eva Dominguez warned too much freedom may well lead to audiences missing the essence of news stories.


"The key is the degree of immersion. Too much of it and the truth could get lost in imagination where you're happy to make your own reality because you can."


Many academics and writers have noted similar concerning trends amid online fake news and social media bubbles, with frequent references to the emergence of a 'post-truth' landscape


The fear is that virtual technologies will aggravate trends of belief outranking fact. 


These worries become more pertinent when viewed in the context of recent struggles to make traditional news storytelling narratives work with virtual technologies.

Experiments by BBC Research & Development have found first-person, point-of-view narratives don't work particularly well as they can leave the user disorientated and confused. 


The BBC virtual reality hub's Zillah Watson discovered similar problems in her recent report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism called VR for News: The New Reality?


She noted the role of reporter may be undermined by virtual reality: "It's assumed a story is mediated through the reporter. But if an editor wants to hear from refugees somewhere, then for VR it could work out just as well - or better - if the refugees tell their own stories." 


These issues illustrate how virtual storytelling is still finding its feet and is easily open to confusion if not moderated effectively.


There are, however, many clear benefits to virtual technologies that should not be ignored. 


CNN became the latest broadcaster to explore these earlier this year when it launched its virtual reality hub (CNNVR). The New York Times, Huffington Post and others also have their own 360˚ and VR departments. 


Much of the content on these platforms has received praise for bringing a new dimension of empathy and understanding. 


Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Edward Humes recently emphasised the extent of these benefits: "Interviews are essential and documents can be invaluable, but there is nothing like being present for the event you're writing about or, at the very least, becoming intimately familiar with the world and culture that your characters inhabit." 


Associated Press editor Tom Kent agrees: "The potential for empathy is even greater in the VR world, since viewers can bond far more easily with a 3D character they're practically touching."


The danger of this level of immersion is empathy can be incredibly powerful and easily distort people's impression of the facts of an event. 


The challenge is to create virtual news that adds to people's immersion in stories but does not open its truth to manipulation. 


In Eva Dominguez's words: "undergoing an immersive experience has great collective potential - so long as the viewer is able to keep a critical distance." 


And as the Ethical Journalism Network states: "getting the facts right is the cardinal principle of journalism." 

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