BY SNEHA GORE MEHENDALE
The idea of ‘immersion’ is in vogue. Adoption of immersive technologies by news organizations appears to be increasing. Many news industry leaders came up with ‘immersive’ news stories over the past few years, to be consumed by Google cardboard, Oculus Rift, and the like. The journalism academia is not immune to this either, with many scholars advocating the usage of ‘immersive’ technologies, as they generate ‘ultimate empathy.’ Although this technological adoption may not prove to be sustainable unless the organizations consider the ethical issues it brings with itself. This short commentary article reviews such ethical concerns which have been outlined so far by the academic research and industry perspectives concerning immersive journalism.
What Is Immersion?
One of the earliest definitions of immersion referred to the experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place as immersion. Essentially, it is a sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality or loss of awareness of the real world around. Amongst the available technologies, Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR), CGI graphics, or 360-degree videos are some commonly used immersive technologies in journalism. Most commonly, the current journalistic productions seem to use Virtual Reality as well as 360-degree videos for producing ‘immersive’ news. They make the audience feel as if they are a part of the surroundings rather than looking at it from an external perspective. Before the usage of these immersive techniques becomes mainstream however, it has to address a few ethical concerns.
Empathy and Distance: How Much Is Too Much?
Immersive technologies aid the news viewer not to remain a bystander by creating a new type of sensory experience. By inducing the audience to feel as if he is really a part of that environment, VR becomes an ultimate empathy machine (Milk, 2015). This enhanced empathy on the audience’s part is in fact the primary reason for many to advocate ‘immersive journalism.’ This empathy causes the ‘React-as-if-real’ (RAIR) phenomenon where members of audiences react to situations as if they were real, even though they know that it is a virtual environment. And while this empathy is much lauded, it also raises a question whether a journalist’s job is to create empathy in the first place (Kent, 2015). A hard news story informs the reader about an incident. Softer news may work towards painting a picture of the incident and making the reader feel as if he were there. In both these cases though, the audience is always aware of his stand as a third party. Immersive technologies, by their nature, try to erase this feeling of being a third party. As the VR experience spatially and temporally connects the audience to the distant suffering, it drifts away from the concept of ‘proper distance’ essential to journalism. Proper distance is necessary to foster a feeling of responsibility towards others without being consumed by their lives, something which the traditional journalism practices. This ‘improper distance’ poses an ethical challenge to the journalistic practice.
Additionally, human brains or minds don’t work in a compartmental fashion. It is impossible for any piece of content to create just the right amount of empathy for everyone and stop there. What is potentially empathy generating, can also generate more intense emotions such as anguish, loathing, or fear. The improper distance, which encourages the audience to subsume into the distant suffering, can take them to the intense negative emotions, and make the suffering not very distant. Enhancing empathy, thus, can very well turn into causing distress. And rest assured, most journalists would not want to give their audience post-traumatic stress disorder! Hence, identifying the fine line between empathy generating and distressing is necessary.
Re-Creation and Orchestration of ‘Facts’
The makers of ‘Clouds over Sidra,’ the much-discussed VR piece produced by the United Nations, explained that they had major regulatory power about what aspects of the refugee camp the viewer sees, hears, and experiences. For example, a scene in Clouds over Sidra shows a boy smiling widely and running towards the audience. This was not a real or natural capture but a planned shot (Kool, 2016). And while this may be done to enhance the empathy and integration on the viewer’s end, the journalist has abandoned his conventionally understood role of reporting facts as they happen, and has started orchestrating the ‘facts’ as suited for the filming. The subjects in the immersive pieces are often asked to re-enact something. For example, in ‘The Displaced’—a 360 degree production by the New York Times is appropriate here. The makers staged a scene of a child riding his bicycle. The NYT faced heavy criticism for this but responded by saying that they are aware of many pitfalls that experimenting with VR news would bring and enough time should be given to the industry to develop ethical guidelines for VR or any other immersive form of journalism (Laws & Utne, 2019). In other cases, some newspapers put out a note saying images of VR apparatus and shadows have been erased in the editing. This editing, common in VR, helps preserve a particular scene just like how a person in real life would see it (Pavlik, 2019). The tripod would be erased, the journalist would walk out of a frame right after the filming begins.
When one produces a piece of orchestrated facts, with some CGI aided overlays, it treads a hazy ground between facts and fiction. ‘Immersive’ content producers may be calling it ‘tweaking’ the circumstances a little to generate more empathy and impact. But in such a case, can these pseudo facts still be called journalism, remains a very strong question.
Journalism is supposed to be neutral, objective and factual. When the motivation behind creating the so-called journalistic pieces is generating high impact, it warrants further enquiry. There is always a possibility that such elaborate, emotions-evoking content may be used to drive home propaganda. The line between persuasion and propaganda is thin. “The powerful are able to fix the premise of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear and think about” (Herman & Chomsky, 1988:1). Immersive technologies have a high potential to become a chief vehicle of fixing and delivering this discourse. There may be a potential shift to a communication style that is more akin to advertising, public relations or propaganda, rather than journalism (Aitamurto, 2018).
Recreated Worlds and Fake News
It would be naïve to assume that these recreations of specific environments would only be used by truth-oriented journalists who work for generating empathy. As fake news (or misinformation, to use the correct term) rapidly becomes a global problem, it could further be exacerbated by the use of VR. Images could be doctored by just about anybody these days, and they are enough to cause anything from presidential wins to mob lynching, as the recent events have proven. If images, which are not even ‘immersive’ and not produced with an aim of generating empathy can affect the society to such an extent, one shudders to imagine what can happen if audience is exposed to some ‘recreated’ fake worlds.
Will the News Industry Make It More Mainstream?
Currently, a major barrier for most of the journalism set-ups in adoption of ‘immersive’ production is the high cost. Spending huge amounts for one-off stories may not make much sense. Moreover, sticking to current formats is also much faster compared to the time intensive ‘immersive’ production and usually works well with the race against time that the broadcast journalism set ups operate on. However, as many pundits and academics go gaga over the immersive journalism, the news industry may soon choose to experiment with it and make it more mainstream. The ethical concerns mentioned above need to be answered though, through development of normative journalism practices.
Aitamurto, T., 2018. Normative paradoxes in 360° journalism: Contested accuracy
andobjectivity. New Media and Society.
Herman, E. & Chomsky, N., 1988. Manufacturing Consent. USA: Pantheon Books.
Kent, T., 2015. Medium. [Online] Available at: http://medium.com/@tjrkent/an-ethical-reality-check-for-virtual-reality-journalism-8e5230673507
Kool, H. (2016). The Ethics of Immersive Journalism: A rhetorical analysis of news storytelling with virtual reality technology. Intersection.
Laws, A. L., & Utne, T. (2019, April 24). Frontiers in robotics and AI. Retrieved from Frontiers in: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frobt.2019.00028/full
Milk, C., 2015. How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/chris_milk_how_virtual_reality_can_create_the_ultimate_empathy_machine?language=en
Pavlik, J., 2019. Journalism in the Age of Virtual Reality. Columbia University Press: New York.