Don’t compromise your ethics when telling stories in VR

At Al Jazeera, we build our organization with people who have a code of ethics ingrained in how they see the world around them. These are journalists who are interested in telling stories from a perspective other than that of the mainstream. Virtual reality (VR) storytelling provides a unique opportunity to reveal how people are experiencing their realities, as the medium is not only immersive but more intimate than traditional documentary. This is especially pertinent in the ongoing debate around how VR storytelling challenges some of the ethical values at the core of journalism. I’d like to share how Al Jazeera’s code of ethics interconnects with how we craft stories at Contrast VR.

Location, location, location

Much of the novelty of 360 and VR storytelling is framed around location. I’ve said before that merely focusing on location not only limits how we tell stories in this medium, but also creates a superficial and faulty framework for VR — one that can fall too easily into the poverty porn category. This is what we see far too often with VR stories from global newsrooms:

  • Stories that take an audience to communities to show how much people are suffering
  • Stories that simply place a camera in a dangerous/exciting place

While shooting “I Am Rohingya,” we decided to tell a story that is not just about the experience of being in a refugee camp, but about one refugee’s life there. Rather than simply placing a 360 camera in the camp, we created our story around Jamalida, a mother, widow and refugee who has experienced terrible things, but also has a strong spirit. We created a story around her reality and the things she does every day. For example, we see Jamalida bathe her children and prepare their food.

Jamalida with her two sons at the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

With a lot of our stories we’re trying to show our viewers how people survive in spite of the situations they face. Rather than victimizing our subjects, we try to show life through their perspective, while making sure our audience understands the overarching political and cultural context that has created those realities.

We believe that VR has to be better than putting cameras in locations simply because we can. Ethics in journalism is as much about why the story is being told as how the story is told.

Rethinking the empathy machine

Thinking about location and the environment also lends itself to rethinking one of the biggest conversations within VR — the empathy machine. When newsrooms first started experimenting with VR, its biggest selling point was helping audiences find empathy for what they see. But the empathy machine also leaves us with a challenge as journalists: ensuring that our audience understands that “feeling like you’re there” is different from actually being there, let alone living there. If a VR camera is set up in a war zone and viewers put on headsets, the experience is exciting for them.

But excitement is not what we’re going after as journalists — at Contrast VR we take our audiences to places because we want them to understand how the lives of the people in these environments are being impacted by the most pressing global issues of our time. In “Oil in Our Creeks,” rather than showing our audience how the Shell oil spill devastated Rivers State in Nigeria, we had Lessi Phillips, a person from the region, show us what happened, but also how she is working toward improving things within her community.

On set in Nigeria with Lessi Phillips and Pastor Christian.

Empathy is not exclusive to the 360/VR medium. Audiences can see powerful images or watch a great 2D linear documentary that can evoke just as much empathy. The danger is that using empathy as the major avenue for telling VR stories can lead to emphasizing the subject as a conduit for emotion, rather than a real person whose life has been impacted by local and international events.

Guiding the subject

Rather than thinking about ethics and VR as a setback, at Contrast VR we like to think of it as a way to educate ourselves, our participants and the audience about how the medium works. For example, in traditional documentary with a 2D camera, those being filmed know not to approach the camera or look at the lens, unless they are being interviewed. In 360, the relationship between the camera and subject is trickier and requires a little bit of navigation, as the lens surrounds the subject and their environment. When we were shooting “Oil in Our Creeks” and “I Am Rohingya,” we had to guide the two characters, Jamalida and Lessi, to avoid approaching the camera. In addition, since we’d made a conscious decision to stay out of the shots in those two films, we asked our subjects to go about their day or activity once we were out of the camera’s view.

At Contrast VR, we uphold the fundamental ethics of journalism — we never tell our subjects how to behave and we never encourage them to do certain things that would look good on camera.

Consent in 360 view

The 360 view sees everything in its scope, which means that when the camera is set up in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, it has the capacity to capture many more people who haven’t given consent. How do we work around this? When we shot “I Am Rohingya,” whenever people came up to ask what we were doing, we answered honestly. We explained that while the camera was focused on our subject, Jamalida, some of them would be in the shot. Those moments were also key for making sure we understood that through this film, we were representing an entire community; the need for high-quality, honest reporting was even greater as we were telling a story not only about our subject, but about an entire community.

On set in Bangladesh, as the crowd gathers around to check out the camera.

Diversity in editorial teams

At Contrast VR part of our mission is to have a diverse team. For us it’s not just an added benefit — it’s essential that our editorial process involves collaborating with people who are connected to the stories we’re telling, to help us see things as they are. For example, when making “Oil in Our Creeks,” we worked with Sustainability International to better understand the nuances of environmental degradation in the region. In addition, we worked with a Nigerian producer and a Nigerian composer for the film’s score. When making “I Am Rohingya,” we collaborated with a producer who had reported from Myanmar since the country first opened to foreign journalists. Rather than simply giving us what we want to see, organizations and individuals from the countries we shoot in help us put together the most accurate representation of the issues we’re covering.

This is not the traditional fixer model, which involves having someone on the ground facilitate access to what we’re looking for. Rather, it’s a 360 and ethical editorial approach that enables us to discover what we need to see, to create work that is both authentic and conscious.

Ethics as a foundation

We’re only a few years into seeing what VR storytelling looks like for newsrooms, but at Al Jazeera we’re over 20 years into establishing how we work ethically as journalists.

We understand that VR raises questions about how we access and engage with communities — we know that navigating this space requires us (not just our audiences) to learn from the communities we engage with. Our foremost consideration in telling VR stories ethically is making sure we adhere to our integrity as a platform — and authentically represent experiences of people around the world in the most human way possible.