An ethical reality check for virtual reality journalism

Virtual reality journalism is with us to stay, and will become even more realistic and immersive as technology improves. Already, virtual reality headsets and vivid sound tracks can put a viewer into stunning, 360-degree scenes of a bombed-out town in Syria. They can drop him onto a dark street in Sanford, Florida, as George Zimmerman surveils Trayvon Martin.

It’s only a matter of time until VR simulation looks more and more like the actual event. The slightly chubby, Lego-like characters that populate some of today’s VR will likely begin to look much more like the actual newsmakers — perhaps indistinguishably so.

The power of VR transforms the news viewer’s experience from just learning about events to being in them. It has the potential to attract young viewers to the news as never before.

Before the technology gallops any further, it’s time for an ethical reality check. How real is virtual reality intended to be? Where’s the line between actual event and the producer’s artistic license? Is VR journalism supposed to be the event itself, an artist’s conception of the event or something akin to a historical novel, “based on a true story”?

Viewers need to know how VR producers expect their work to be perceived, what’s been done to guarantee authenticity and what part of a production may be, frankly, supposition.

This kind of transparency can be accomplished through pre-roll disclosures on VR stories themselves, and by producers creating and posting their own ethics codes. The Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code project will include a section to help create ethics statements for VR.
Here are some building blocks to consider for these disclosures and codes:

● What’s real? At the Associated Press, our interactive team painstakingly mapped a series of luxury locales in high-resolution imagery for a VR piece on high-end hotels, cruise liners and air travel. Everything in a project like that can be photographed precisely.

But things can become more complicated if a VR modeler wants to re-create a moving, active news event in 3-D on the basis of 2-D photos or video taken at the time. Suppose he wants the viewer to be able to walk entirely around people and objects, viewing them from all angles. Since the 2-D image doesn’t show everything, the modeler has to make a decision. Just hypothesize what the backs and sides of objects look like? Or leave some things a little fuzzy to connote uncertainty? Unexplained fuzziness will look to the viewer like poor-quality VR work. One remedy might be a disclosure statement that says some elements have intentionally been left unclear because their accuracy can’t be confirmed.

Other disclosures could cover the dialogue, facial expressions and gestures in re-creations of events. Do they come from solid photographic and audio sources? The recollections of witnesses? Police reports? Or the producers’ own estimation of how the events likely occurred? In an NPR interview, Nonny de la Peña of Emblematic Group, whose team created the Syria and Trayvon Martin VR stories, spoke of using techniques developed in documentaries “to re-create a scene that perhaps was not captured on camera, and I think that there’s a lot of best practices that documentarians use to make sure that something’s accurate and I try to bring those to bear in the virtual environment.”

● Image integrity. How much modification of images should be allowed? The AP project included a $50,000-a-night hotel room loaded with mirrors. That made photography hard. In fact, in one scene you can see, reflected in a mirror, the VR camera on a tripod. Some might argue that it’s OK in such a case to digitally remove the camera, since it isn’t normally part of the room. But AP forbids manipulating photographs, so the camera stayed in. Thomas McMullan cites the issue of whether VR editors, working from actual imagery of a news event, should edit out disturbing sights like bloody bodies. A producer could put into his ethics code his policy on manipulating images in VR.

● Are there competing views of what happened? Often there’s controversy over how a newsworthy event unfolded. Producers can post a policy about how they will account for differing viewpoints. The Reynolds Journalism Institute and Dan Archer of Empathetic Media created a VR presentation on the Michael Brown shooting that showed events from the perspectives of several different witnesses.

● What’s the goal of the presentation? VR technology has a powerful ability to inspire empathy for those depicted in their productions. TechCrunch called VR “the empathy machine.”

Clearly, journalism’s job is to bring human drama alive for distant audiences. But creating empathy is a goal beyond just telling a story. If the ultimate aim is to create emotion, a journalist could be tempted to omit balancing or inconvenient information that could interfere with the desired emotional effect.

In traditional media, too, the desire to paint a cause or a person in sympathetic tones can conflict with impartial, hard-headed reporting. But the potential for empathy is even greater in the VR world, since viewers can bond far more easily with a 3-D character they’re practically touching. Music can also be used to evoke specific emotions among VR viewers. VR producers would do well to make clear to their audiences what the fundamental goal of their journalism is.

There’s also the question of whether VR representations of sufferings can trivialize victims’ experiences, reducing them to just another diversion a viewer can dip into for a few minutes. When the viewer puts the goggles back on the shelf, is the horror of scene neatly put away in his or her mind? McMullan asks, “Can I develop empathy by virtually experiencing something without an awareness of the subject’s lived experience? Does claiming empathy by using a VR headset for a few minutes diminish the actual horrors of living in a warzone?”

● What’s happening beyond the VR scene? A VR world is a controlled environment. When a viewer straps on a VR headset and starts walking, there’s a powerful impression of roaming freely through the virtual world. She can turn for a 360 view of the scene, look up at the sky and down at the earth. The options for movement seem endless.

But they’re not. The limits of the VR world are circumscribed by the imagery the producer chooses to include, just as 2-D photography depends on the angles photographers select. If a VR experience is built from video footage of a violent demonstration, it may not let the viewer wander a few streets away where life is going on as usual.

While VR pioneer Chris Milk told the Guardian that VR “is taking out the middle man … and making you feel as if you were actually there,” the viewer is in fact in a walled world created by the middle man of the producer. Sometimes there are even cues indicating in what direction the producer wants the viewer to look. Presentations might benefit by saying what happened outside the scene being shown, and encouraging the viewer to look all the way around at the imagery that is included. VR presentations could also be embedded together with photos, text stories and video that describe the story in much more detail than the the VR scene itself can provide.

● And more. Many other ethical issues arise with VR. Must the VR rendition of an event cover the same amount of time as the original? Kathleen Culver raises privacy questions and the need for warnings about gruesome or frightening content. Dan Pacheco of Syracuse University told the Online News Association’s annual conference in September that VR hacks into your brain, lighting up “parts of your brain that have never been activated by journalism before.” (Nonny de la Peña told a conference that she warns viewers before showing them a harrowing scene.)

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times, marked that paper’s plunge into VR with her own review of the ethical issues involved.

In the future, we can imagine further enhancements to VR through the addition of tactile feedback — vibrations the viewer can feel as a train goes by, or the generation of wind and smells. Each new element will merit its own discussion about whether it truly reflects reality.

VR is becoming a powerful technique to hold and influence news audiences. But if producers focus solely on optimizing the technology or creating empathy for their characters, VR’s journalistic credibility will be threatened.

“Virtual reality is expanding as a medium and becoming increasingly accessible to news consumers on a wide array of storytelling platforms, but no established set of standards and ethics around applying journalism in VR environments currently exists,” says Raney Aronson-Rath of the PBS investigative series Frontline, which has received a Knight Foundation grant to explore VR production and ethics with the Emblematic Group.

Common understandings of what techniques are ethically acceptable and what needs to be disclosed to viewers can go a long way toward guarding the future of VR as a legitimate journalistic tool.

Thomas Kent is the standards editor of The Associated Press and teaches at Columbia University. This article was updated on Oct. 17, 2015 with additional material, including comments from a conference of the Online News Association, on Nov. 8 with references to music and guiding where the viewer looks and on Nov. 15 with a link to a column by Margaret Sullivan.

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