Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality: Reality’s Portrayal or Betrayal?

Virtual Reality is becoming an increasingly popular form of digital storytelling. The technological requirements for consumers and producers alike are constantly more accessible (see: Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear 360, Garmin VIRB 360). With the increase in VR content, questions regarding storytelling, technique, and ethics have arisen in industry conversation. The latter will be the focus of this post, however, before I explore Immersive Journalism (360/VR journalistic content), I’d like to share some fictitious VR content. Consider either of these music videos:

— The Weeknd feat. Eminem. The Hills Remix. 2015.

— Run the Jewels. Crown. 2016.

I share these because they’re pretty dope they help to highlight the way in which the VR experience is, as filmmaker Michael Beets puts it, “spatial” (LBB Editorial 2016).

— An excerpt for Michael Beets’ Jafri. 2016.

Beets compares the VR experience to that of Theatre, where, comparatively to film where an audience is told what to look at, an audience is invited into a space and allowed to ‘look around’ or explore on their own. As is evident in the music videos above, this creates a different story experience for every view(er). For example, @2:36 in the Run the Jewels piece the viewer can look in one direction and see a man in a suit deposit the ashes of his cigar on the shoulders of a soldier. From another point of view, the soldier looks around actively through the sight of his gun. These two visuals tell different stories.

Immersive Journalism

If journalism aims to tell the truth contextualised through story, what happens when the ability to construct a story is removed?

Providing context is one of the most crucial obligations journalists have to the public. However, with the exception of voice-over, the current 360 video model makes this extremely difficult.

— Taylor NakagawaUpdating the ethics of VR journalism: Conversations with six pioneers in the field. 2017.

Other ethics issues that relate are, for example:

  • Consent and the inability to have a ‘behind the scenes’;

When we are shooting a scene in 360, we need to be sure that everyone in the shot wants to be in the shot. That is critical.

— Deniz Ergürel qtd. by Nakagwa. Updating the ethics of VR journalism: Conversations with six pioneers in the field. 2017.

  • And trauma for the viewer:

Does its visceral nature require new guidelines governing explicit and traumatic imagery?

— Benjamin Mullin. Virtual reality: A new frontier in journalism ethics. 2016.

To combat this, most Immersive Journalism is carefully edited and assisted by, as Nakagawa notes, a voiceover (2017). For example:

— Chang W. Lee, Logan Jaffe and Joshua Thomas. An ‘Awesome’ View At America’s First Offshore Wind Farm. 2017.

Immersive Journalism seems to be most ethical as timely, polished and produced projects rather than immediate journalism. Who We Remain (2017) uses audio from interviews, accompanied by superimposed text, to tell the story in place of narration. The post-production is far from hidden:

— Trevor Snapp and Sam Wolson. We Who Remain. 2017.

Would a live VR broadcast of a news event be ethical? What if violence or other forms of tragedy occurred?

Another major ethical question that has been toyed with is that of the obstruction of reality. Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin puts it:

…one of the primary ethical dilemmas of virtual reality: how to use obtrusive cameras to document the world without affecting it?

…Do the technical requirements of virtual reality conflict with the long-held journalistic standards preventing photojournalists from influencing the scenes they record?

— Benjamin Mullin. Virtual reality: A new frontier in journalism ethics. 2016.

Hollis Kool adds to this:

Is it ethical to erase the mark of the journalist who still has a large stake in the orchestration, construction, and communication of her narrative?
This intentional omission of the camera through carefully planned angles speaks to a larger aim of virtual reality (VR) technology: to establish a sense of presence. As applied to journalism, the erasure of the journalist is only one technique that arguably makes the viewer feel as though the event they are witness to is real and that they are a participant in it.
…The verisimilitude of digital realities might be too real. The stealth the technology permits to a journalist makes the constructed story seem perfectly unadulterated.

— Hollis Kool. The Ethics of Immersive Journalism A rhetorical analysis of news storytelling with virtual reality technology. 2016.

This is a fascinating conundrum and one which I am sure will remain in fluctuation for a long time to come, particularly as the accessibility of these technologies continues to increase.  I will leave you with these two conflicting, yet simultaneously complimentary quotes:

Jenna Pirog, a virtual reality editor at The New York Times Magazine who produced the critically acclaimed VR documentary “The Displaced,” noted that as The Times continues to experiment with virtual reality, this new technology could become the most objective medium its field reporters have ever worked with.

— — Taylor NakagawaUpdating the ethics of VR journalism: Conversations with six pioneers in the field. 2017.

In translation, noise by the storyteller’s decisions disrupts the purity of the conveyed reality.
— Hollis Kool. The Ethics of Immersive Journalism A rhetorical analysis of news storytelling with virtual reality technology. 2016.

Works Cited

Batt, A., Blackballer, L., Margolius, S. (Producers), & Martin, P. (Director). (2016). Crown [Motion Picture].

Beets, M. (Director). (2016). Jafri Katagar Alexander X [Motion Picture].

Kool, H. (2016). The Ethics of Immersive Journalism: A rhetorical analysis of news storytelling with virtual reality technology. Intersect, 9(3).

LBB Editorial. (2016, September). Jafri: How Director Michael Beets Brought a Melbourne Local Legend to the World with VR. Retrieved from Little Black Book: https://lbbonline.com/news/jafri-how-director-michael-beets-brought-a-melbourne-local-legend-to-the-world-with-vr/

Lee, C. W., Jaffe, L., & Thomas, J. (Directors). (2017). An ‘Awesome’ View At America’s First Offshore Wind Farm [Motion Picture].

Mullin, B. (2016, January 06). Virtual reality: A new frontier in journalism ethics. Retrieved from Poynter: https://www.poynter.org/2016/virtual-reality-the-next-frontier-in-journalism-ethics/390280/

Nakagawa, T. (2017, January 04). Updating the ethics of VR journalism: Conversations with six pioneers in the field. Retrieved from Medium: https://medium.com/journalism360/updating-the-ethics-of-vr-journalism-e78255e1e507

Realities, N. f. (Director). (2015). The Weeknd – The Hills remix feat. Eminem ( A Virtual Reality Experience) [Motion Picture].

Snapp, T., & Wolson, S. (Directors). (2017). We Who Remain [Motion Picture].


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

*Featured Image Credit:
Licensed by Adobe Stock.

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