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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Virtual Reality

Virtual Journalism: Immersive Approaches Pose New Questions

t’s 1955. On CBS, a deep-voiced announcer backs a jittery reel of black-and-white stills.

“October 8, 1871,” he intones with high drama. “The Chicago Fire.”

And then the hook: “You. Are. There.”

Screenshot courtesy of Chicago Film Archives, captured January 17, 2015.

Screenshot courtesy of Chicago Film Archives, captured January 17, 2015.

The CBS News production then cuts to Walter Cronkite at the anchor desk, aside a microphone, script in hand. “Walter Cronkite reporting. October 8th, 1871. In this year and month, we are suffering in Chicago…”

“You Are There” was a CBS reenactment series through which anchor Cronkite would transport viewers to a historical event and treat it as though he were reporting it live. Breathless on-scene reporters, actors serving as famous sources and fake footage were all intended to put the audience in the scene of events like the Hindenburg disaster, the Revolutionary War or the Great Chicago Fire. Though easy to criticize today as staged and hokey docudrama, “You Are There” was nonetheless a novel effort during the heady experimental days of early television news.

We are in those heady days again, still seeking to carry our audiences to scenes to help them experience – and feel – the news of the day. But today, the experimentation comes in the form of a headset, a virtual reality approach that puts its wearer “in” the environment. And with that transport, come key ethical questions about representation, privacy, intellectual property and media effects.

The Technology

Virtual reality is not new. Beginning mainly in the 1960s with flight simulation, VR – also known as “augmented reality” or “immersive multimedia” – picked up speed with an MIT project mapping Aspen, Colorado, through video. The concept is simple: use a headset device to simulate a physical environment through sensory experiences, most commonly sight and sound.

Development in virtual reality today is driven largely by the gaming sector and consumers’ apparently insatiable appetite for those experiences. Industry leader Oculus, known primarily for its emerging Oculus Rift device, envisions a world of consumer-grade headsets that put a gamer into the experience of “Call of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto.” That vision took a major step forward in 2014 with the arrival of the Samsung Gear VR, a virtual reality headset powered by smartphone, rather than the expensive desktop computers previously needed for processor-heavy simulations.

These headsets provide two kinds of virtual experience: animation or video. Both attempt to recreate reality and allow the user to walk virtually through scenes. With an Oculus Rift strapped on, a user can go into the animated environment of a Tuscan estate. The scene tracks with body movements, as users turn their heads or use keystrokes to ascend a staircase or peer over a stone wall. Through the Gear VR, they can go into a performance of Cirque du Soleil created through 360-degree video, watching various performers as if sitting on the stage itself.

But VR potential extends far beyond gaming and entertainment. In January, the United Nations debuted an emotional immersive experience following a Syrian refugee girl, “Clouds Over Sidra.” The piece is viewable on the Gear VR via its Milk VR delivery system, a.k.a., “the YouTube for Virtual Reality.” To appreciate the differences inherent in an immersive experience, watch a reporter explore a refugee camp through the Gear VR.

With that view, the potential for journalism is almost immediately apparent. Though its commercial prospects pale in comparison with gaming, immersive journalism is already in production. And in fact, one of the leaders in this space, documentary filmmaker Nonny de la Peña, has earned acclaim with Syria as her immersive focus, as well. Recently called “The Godmother of Virtual Reality,” she is working on all aspects of VR in journalism, including hardware development, reporting and virtual rendering.

As de la Peña explained to the BBC, immersive approaches advance journalism by putting the audience into a place and giving them a sensory connection with it.

“It creates a duality of presence. You know you’re ‘here,’ but you feel like you’re ‘there’ too. And the experience is much more visceral. It’s really a kind of a whole-body experience and is very unique – different than radio, than television, than any other kind of format for experiencing a story,” de la Peña says.

Dan Pacheco, professor and Horvitz Chair in Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse journalism school at Syracuse University, is experimenting with these technologies with students. He says that while the world is excited about what VR will do for gamers, he’s thrilled by the potential for transforming citizens’ knowledge of the world around them.

“We no longer have to be limited to telling stories. We can take you into an experience,” Pacheco says. “No matter how many times you tell a story, people don’t feel it. Once you start to show it, it’s a little better but still far, far away. Once you can move someone into an experience, that’s really the key.”

He has first-hand experience, having served as a consultant on Gannett’s first foray into virtual reality – a tour of an Iowa farm as part of its “Harvest of Change” series. The VR approach puts viewers into the farm environment, enabling them to navigate around barns and approach giant tractors. Visual cues open doors to more information on elements of the farm. The experience is best using the Oculus Rift headset, but others can get a sense of the experience using the Unity player on a web browser.

The place-based feeling of VR is particularly important for stories depending on a sense of space and perspective. The Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the University of Missouri experimented with an animated VR approach to cover eyewitness statements in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. A walk through their output, helmed by graphic journalist and RJI fellow Dan Archer, shows some of the possibilities of VR for journalism.

Each witness’ perspective is virtually apparent as the user experiences his or her statements. This gives the reporting an angle that’s not quite possible with text. Video would capture the sense of space, but cannot give the user the same control over movement. The package is rudimentary, as the technology is nascent, but provides a window into what will be possible in the future.

“It comes down to a much-abused term that’s being bandied about these days: empathy,” Archer says. “I first got into graphic journalism as a way of placing the reader at the heart of a news story by using art to visualize the accounts of my interviewees from their first-person perspective. That was several years ago, and the technology … has at last almost caught up to speed.”

Explore the Ferguson virtual reality project (requires download of Unity player).

Explore the Ferguson virtual reality project (requires download of Unity player).

Implications for Journalism Ethics

As with all emerging media platforms, VR presents opportunities, but also demands serious ethical consideration. In some cases, traditional ethics contested over decades help inform our judgments. But in others, the very immersion itself prompts questions we have not yet tackled in journalism.

How real is the virtual?

Ethical questions begin with the basics. When constructing an animated virtual reality, what steps can be taken to make it as real as possible? What are the dimensions of surrounding buildings? What are the colors and shapes of people in the scene? What’s the relative perspective between the user and the trees around her?

In the case the Ferguson package, the VR rendering shows a blue sky with puffy white clouds. But video from the scene shows a more gray, dreary day. Does this matter for the story? Would it change the audience’s understanding? All of these questions must factor into animated recreations. But they’re also issues in 360-degree video. One would imagine it to be less fraught with potential for distortion, yet video that’s captured in 360 degrees still has to be edited in two dimensions. This can interfere with rendering reality as it was caught on the original video.

It’s important to recognize, however, that virtual reality does not introduce these concerns in significantly new ways. De la Peña faced criticism early in her work from those who claimed VR journalism was too subjective and thus could not be ethical. Yet when operating in text, still, video, audio or interactivity, we’re continually making judgment calls about what to cover, what to render and how to do it. VR certainly poses issues of subjectivity, but they are extensions of critical questions we need to be asking ourselves in all platforms.

Archer, in fact, notes that VR as a form holds promise for helping users recognize subjectivity because the choices are so apparent in a graphically rendered environment.

“All we can do is be open and honest with readers, and highlight what we chose to include and exclude.” Archer says. “My hope is that using this process we can lean more heavily on readers to explore what the notion of ‘truth’ is using this new virtual frame of reference.”

Whose reality is it?

Just as we must with any text, video, audio or interactive story, we must wrestle with the sourcing in virtual reality packages. The Ferguson piece lays this bare. Source perspective, motivations and biases all play roles in the creation of the virtual environment. Certainly the number of feet between a window and a road can be measured, scaled and recreated in VR. But where a person says she stood and what she says she saw are less certain. Yet when they are rendered in a virtual environment, they are necessarily made more real for the audience.

Who owns a reality?

The “Harvest of Change” series, the virtual tour of the Iowa farm, quickly raised questions of intellectual property and trademark. Does recreating an exact animation of a trademarked tractor design infringe on that design? Does it do so with iconic public buildings? With emerging technologies, we often find law lagging behind what’s possible. Ethics must fill the breach, as we weigh others’ rights to their creations and the implications of our own recreations.

How much does this cost?

The ethics of economics matter in an age of news media disruption. The “Harvest of Change” package – while fascinating and exciting – came at time when Gannett laid off dozens of employees at its flagship paper. Although Pacheco says the cost of the VR package was not exorbitant (he’s barred from disclosing exact figures), expenditures on experimentation always come at the expense of other elements of news gathering. This context, however, demonstrates that funding experimental platforms and approaches may be one of the most justifiable expenditures of strained resources – within reason, of course. Virtual reality is expected to capture an audience through gaming that has been particularly elusive for news media: teens and young adults. These virtual platforms may be an ideal way to stimulate their interaction with news, serving them as citizens. But this requires a focused, thoughtful strategy, rather than merely chasing the latest toy. It also requires that we consider for whom we are developing these technology uses and whether we are leaving important audience segments out. Early speculation was that the cost of an Oculus Rift would make it a rich kid’s toy, at best. Yet the Gear VR is surprisingly affordable and because it runs off a mobile phone, its potential is open to a more diverse set of users who would otherwise lack consistent access to a desktop machine.

Whose expectations matter?

Privacy is clearly one of the largest ethical considerations for journalists with immersives, especially 360-degree video. As with drones capable of low-cost capture of video, still images and sound from the air above both public and private property, use of video and even animations for virtual reality poses the risk of invading privacy. Law is sorely behind technological development in this arena, so ethics are more crucial than ever.

“We’re not that far from drones flying all over the place and capturing everything,” Pacheco says. “Pandora’s Box opened back in the ‘70s and we’re not going to be able to close that. It’s going to be interesting to see how people use that for good and how they use it in morally and ethically questionable ways.”

Privacy, especially in law, is largely premised on the protection of personal space, and we punish intrusions into that space. We ask where a person has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” and generally conclude that such expectations are far stronger in personal spaces than in public ones. A woman has a reasonable expectation of privacy in her kitchen, but not in, say, a Starbucks in downtown Chicago.

But privacy is not merely a question of law. As media ethicist Cliff Christians notes, privacy is also a fundamental moral good. While privacy is essential for individual flourishing, protecting such human development is ultimately a common good.

“A private domain gives people their own identity and unique self-consciousness within the human species … Privacy as a moral good is nonnegotiable because controlling our life’s core is essential to our personhood,” Christians writes.

In an age when technology enables a transformation from simple observation to sophisticated surveillance, journalism must wrestle with the implications of this possibility. Virtual reality that relies on video capture, for instance, poses the problem of incidental capture. Imagine an immersive experience designed to transport users to a Liberian hospital treating patients with Ebola. Although currently limited in scope, technology will quickly be able to transmit live 360-degree video from such a hospital. Even if the clinicians or patients in focus consent to their story being used, the camera will pick up the full scope of the scene and enable users to move themselves in for closer looks. We must consider the privacy of the people within that scene.

And while VR would commonly be assumed to be more easily justified in a public setting – say, a street – the sophistication of the capture will also include spaces normally deemed private – say, a person’s living room windows. As we have struggled to conceptualize and deal with the privacy implications of emerging technologies like Google Street View, we will have to contend with the invasiveness of virtual reality. But the stakes increase with its use in journalism, specifically because news is so often about capturing people’s most difficult moments.

When is the virtual too real?

While some evidence is emerging that virtual reality may be useful as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, Pacheco and others worry about the effects of putting people in stressful situations through VR. The concern is that renderings that are sufficiently real may trigger memory as though the user actually experienced a place or event. No one could mistake Walter Cronkite’s staged Chicago Fire coverage as real. But consider a virtual reality headset with video images of fire, plus the sound of crackling and gusting, plus the thick smell of smoke, plus the sense of growing warmth. These sensations have far more potential to induce trauma.

VR coverage of war, torture, rape and other violence will prompt searing questions about lasting consequences of consuming journalism that eclipse our current research on media effects. All of these considerations must factor into uses of virtual reality for journalism, keeping subjects and audiences more firmly in mind than the mere possibilities the technology affords, Pacheco says.

“The most important thing that we need to keep in mind with immersive and experiential media is that because people feel like they’re somewhere else, you always need to keep the experience of the user as the most important ethical consideration.”

Kathleen Bartzen Culver is an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication and associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. This essay was originally posted on February 4, 2015 at digital, the website of the Center for Digital Ethics at Loyola University Chicago.