Virtual Reality Journalism

This section addresses these ethical issues:

Virtual reality is a powerful new force in journalism, capable of transporting a viewer directly into a news event. However, its very power requires serious thinking about ethics. The producer needs to be transparent with the viewer about how the project was created and what impression it is designed to create on the viewer.

The first decision is the fundamental nature of the project. Is it aimed at simply capturing reality — for instance, letting a viewer walk through a luxury hotel room or a refugee camp where VR equipment has been set up? Is it aimed at more than capturing reality? Is the project an attempt to re-create an actual news event where VR recording did not take place?

Or is it a device of persuasion, calculated to lead the viewer to certain political or social conclusions?

Even the process of capturing reality can raise substantial issues. Due to the sometimes cumbersome nature of VR equipment, VR projects may need to be set up like a movie shoot, with shots mapped out in advance. If so, people in the shot will be fully aware that VRmoviemaking is going on. That could affect their behavior. In some cases, VR producers have operated somewhat as directors, shooting and re-shooting scenes until they get what they want. When that happens there can be question about whether the project is truly capturing reality at all, or using the people in the scene as as extras in a movie.

There’s also the question of whether scenes of reality should be edited to remove disturbing imagery, like corpses, or for technical purposes, like removing the image of the VR camera itself if its reflection appears in the production. The “stitching” of multiple images that produces virtual reality also must be conducted so as to keep the imagery faithful to the original.

When re-creating a news event that wasn’t captured originally by VR cameras, the ethical issues are even greater. If the project is being created on the basis of two-dimensional photos or video shot at the time, a certain amount of guesswork is required to turn them into three-dimensional objects; the backs and sides of objects must be imagined. How might this be conveyed to viewers?

What about the authenticity of dialogue, gestures, clothing and background details in re-creations of news events? Are we certain of them? Is the producer using a bit of artistic license, but still trying conscientiously to remain faithful to the scene? Or is the producer remaking the event to reflect a particular agenda, intentionally adjusting elements to convey a desired impression?

Technology is developing so quickly that the computer-generated images of newsmakers in VRscenes may soon be indistinguishable from the people themselves. That will make VRproductions breathtakingly realistic, but will create images so powerful that viewers may think they’re from the event itself. Not to mention that VR clips may be taken out of context and reposted in other forums as being actual news footage.

VR producers will also have to grapple with a series of other problems. Could terrifyingly realistic VR portrayals of violence induce post-traumatic stress in the viewer? If a scene shows a riot, should the viewer be given the opportunity to see life going on as normal a few streets away?

Given all these issues, it’s important for VR producers to have a clear code of ethics.

The primary author of this section is Thomas Kent.

Additional resources
An Ethical Reality Check for Virtual Reality Journalism
Virtual Journalism: Immersive Approaches Pose New Questions