VR and journalism: How much can we really get inside the story?
The difficulty of creating virtual reality experiences that conform to journalistic ethics has been a hot topic lately. But while some are asking whether it’s ethical to recreate a scene or hide from the camera, we’re more interested in a less technical and more fundamental ethical consideration — that is, what do we have to do as VR journalists to take responsibility for the stories we tell, and the choices we make in telling them?
At Tiny World Productions, we’ve been talking about three levels of closeness you can aim for when trying to share a story — looking at someone, looking with someone, and looking as someone.
The first two each have their place in journalistic storytelling: Looking at someone keeps the greatest distance, and looking with someone is the style to which this medium lends itself. The third, looking as someone, can be approximated but never fully achieved. And it’s dangerous to think it can be, because VR offers a false promise — it’s said to increase empathy and bring the viewer inside the story, but how much can you really get inside another person’s life and mind?
Chris Milk, who we all know does beautiful work, recently waxed poetic about the potential for VR to allow people to step into other people’s lives and minds in his announcement of his company’s name change from VRSE to Within.
It’s true; virtual reality offers unprecedented potential for experiential storytelling. But for journalists there’s a problem: There’s no way to actually get inside someone else’s mind or see through their eyes. Every person carries their own background and personal circumstances. A middle class American isn’t going to get any more into the mind of a economic refugee child by looking at their story through a VR headset than they are by taking a 2-week vacation to that kids’ hometown (that’s called slum tourism, people, and it can be pretty awful, similar to voluntourism). Actually feeling what that kid feels, well, it’s just not possible.
And that’s where our real ethical concerns as journalists should come in. While VR allows us to look inside a story and possibly feel what it’s like to be there, we’re still there as ourselves. It continues to be the storyteller’s responsibility to add to that sense of presence the insights that journalists have always been tasked with providing — how did we get here, who wins and who loses, and why should we care?
While it may be easier in VR and 360 storytelling to share an isolated experience with a viewer, addressing those questions is arguably harder in this medium than in any other. When you can’t tell a viewer what to look at, you lose the traditional filmmaker’s main tool for making sure that the context surrounding a story is comprehensible to its audience.
Maybe that’s fine, after all, since we’re still figuring out how to do journalistic work in this medium, and immersive storytelling is largely about the experience. But, as journalists, we still have to figure out how to do that responsibly — how to tell challenging stories in meaningful and impactful ways, and not just create entertainment built on someone else’s suffering as we attempt to relate experiences that our not our own.