VR’s Potential for Journalism Lies in Understanding Its Challenges
Virtual reality is not a new technology, but its use in journalism is still in its infancy.
It has the potential for great journalistic storytelling and for bringing audiences right inside the action. Virtual reality can be a powerful tool to evoke a reaction from audiences, which they cannot get from traditional forms of journalism. Instead, with VR, the audience is surrounded by the story.
While it is not widely yet used in breaking news, VR can be an effective medium for well-thought-out stories that can teach people things in a new perspective.
However, understanding and overcoming its challenges is what will make this an important and useful tool for journalists.
For starters, VR requires viewers to take a number of steps before they even reach the story. This does not align with traditional news gathering habits. We often gather news while multi-tasking through multiple apps or doing other activities. We receive most of our news through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. According to The American Press Institute , young adults are most likely to get their news from mobile devices.
In addition to downloading an app and selecting a story to watch, the audience must also have some sort of headset such as Google Cardboard. In an effort to reach audiences, The New York Times gave out over 1.3 million Google Cardboard headsets in 2015 . Otherwise, a typical headset on Amazon costs between $10 to $30. Google Cardboard is made of that exactly - cardboard - and once assembled and used with the right apps and headphones can easily immerse you in VR without the cost or weight of a plastic headset such as the Samsung Gear. Once you have the headset, app, and story picked out, all that’s left is to put in headphones and enter the VR world.
Despite all of the steps needed to access VR stories, some say that the experience evokes a reaction from the audience that you cannot get simply from words or traditional video. According to The Ethics of Immersive Journalism, “The creation of presence through sensory details and the obsolescence of the journalist in VR culminate in a powerful feeling of emotional connectedness and empathy.”
Yet biggest obstacle facing journalists when it comes to VR is that someone has to really want to watch your story for them to see it versus being able to just slip it into a newsfeed. There are also very few laws or guidance about VR and almost none when it comes to VR and journalism. This is because the technology is advancing faster than the passing of laws.
The cost of production when it comes to VR is also very high. The cost of a six-ring camera from Go-Pro is $4,999 and the editing software to stitch the footage together starts at $700. Hiring a production team such as 360 Designs can cost around $10,000 a day. These high costs mean that only some of the major news organizations are the big players in VR. These include NBC, The Guardian, Associated Press, New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The VR stories offered by these organizations vary from feature stories on families displaced by war to coverage of political debates.
The role of journalists as VR storytellers must also be explored more deeply. A report by the Tow Center by the Center of Digital Journalism found in a case study that “the VR medium challenges core journalistic questions evolving from the fourth wall debate, such as ‘who is the journalist?’ and ‘what does the journalist represent?’” When watching VR stories such as Inside Syria VR and seeing the awkward and pixelated stand up by the journalist shows that there might be other ways to insert the journalist to aid the story.
Finding the right fit for the journalist and his or her place in VR is something we should be optimistic about and work to find a solution for.
Overall, VR faces the challenge of making the audience want to become part of their story. It is also not the best medium for every story. Breaking news or graphic stories may not fit because it could be unsettling or disturbing to the viewer. The journalist must understand the effect a story experienced in virtual reality will have on their audiences in order to make valuable and ethical VR stories.