The first years of VR in journalism have been largely experimental. We were trying to see what the technology could do. Every project pretty much made up its own rules as far as standards were concerned. And understandably: It’s hard to come up with a whole ethical construct when you’re busy enough just trying to get the headset to work and stitch the imagery together. But now, baby’s grown up. Not completely – there are lots of VR innovations still to come. But headsets have become routine, affordable purchases. Consumers are getting a steady stream of VR productions based on the news. In the next year or two, millions of people will be forming lifetime beliefs about what VR news is. So it’s time for a conversation on VR standards. With still images, people understand that a photo can be the event itself ...
Or an artist’s impression of the event ...
... or a commentary.
But those three things can blend together in a VR presentation. Producers do start with reality ... But there’s a great temptation to take some artistic license. And the sheer immersive power of VR can pull you so far into the scene that you can’t help but emerge with a strong political or social opinion– probably the one the producer intended.
One of the biggest VR producers, RYOT, makes a point of doing news coverage that leads viewers to take action. RYOT says it shows you “what's going on in the world AND what you can do about it.”
So that’s the first standards question: will there be a space and a market for objectivity in VR news? Or will VR news productions evolve principally into tools of persuasion, to get people to donate money, sign petitions or join a cause? If so, people will come to expect not just news, but activism, when they put on a VR headset.
A second standards question is how real VR imagery should be. Here’s a presentation by The Associated Press, showing a super-luxury hotel suite. This is 100 percent real; everything is photographed precisely, from every angle. You can walk around objects and see them as they really are, from any side. Compare that these other projects.
This project by the Economist is designed to re-create a museum in Mosul, Iraq, that was destroyed by the Islamic State group. Producers digitally rebuilt the museum ...
... room by room in virtual reality ...
... and filled it with the original art objects. Which they re-created in 3D from photos taken over the years by tourists. A fantastic use of VR to restore what Islamic State wiped out. But … the photos were taken by different tourists, from different angles, in two dimensions. While the 3D objects look authentic, the VR creators acknowledge they’re not close enough to the originals to be scientifically useful.
Here’s a VR scene by Nonny de la Pena’s Emblematic Group, of an explosion in Syria. It was created quite accurately, from real video. But as technology evolves, there’ll be an increasing temptation to “complete,” so to speak, these kinds of scenes, so viewers with headsets can walk around within the presentation. That means filling in what the 2-D video camera didn’t capture, like the other side of the motorcycle. Or the expression on the face, of the man running at the left. So if we’re talking about objects in a museum that aren’t complete accurate … or guesswork about the other sides of objects, do we need disclosures, and what kind? Some kind of statement that appears on a slide before the piece starts?
Or maybe something other than text. Here’s an Emblematic piece recounting a domestic violence tragedy that ended in a murder-suicide. The producers extensively interviewed witnesses as to who was standing where, even what clothes they were wearing. But what about the facial expressions? That’s hard to know.
Uncertainty in this situation might be conveyed by obscuring the exact expressions, to make clear we don’t know what they are.
Then there’s the question of how an event happened. How do you re-create it if different witnesses saw different things? Dan Archer created this VR, re-telling of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, from the points of view of several different witnesses. Guided by the map at the upper right, the viewer can move from witnesses to witness to get different accounts of what happened. VR adds power to each of the accounts. But the final decision on what to believe is up the viewer.
Another standards question. Should VR producers show the viewer everything the camera captures? Here are the bodies of migrant children three months ago on a beach in Turkey. Still and video photographers can select their angles, so if they want to avoid the children’s faces, they can. But a VR camera sees everything around it. Traditional journalistic standards say you should never manipulate the content of a photo. Should those standards apply to VR as well?
We ran into this question a lot less tragically in AP’s re-creation of that luxury hotel suite. The suite’s bathroom had so many mirrors that we couldn’t help the VR camera becoming part of the image. Someone might argue for electronically removing it; after all, hotel bathrooms don’t usually have VR cameras in them. But image integrity is sacred at AP, so the camera stayed.
Some might also have a strong emotional reaction to this look, by the Guardian, at a solitary confinement cell in an American prison. Turn around and you see exactly what the prisoner does – a drab cell, with no distractions, where prisoners may be kept alone for days or weeks.
The science of how VR affects our brains is still young. The more we learn, the more we’ll have to tailor our warnings. We may not feel comfortable showing some things at all.
Then there’s the question of mobility. A lot of virtual reality is set up so you stand in one place, and look 360 degrees around you. As in this New York Times production on the suffering of refugee children.
You can see everything as you turn around this bombed-out classroom in Ukraine.
But you’re still rooted to the spot the producer chose to begin with. If the VR technique lets you walk through a scene, you’re still in a walled world selected by the producer; you can only make those turns the production allows. Should the producer provide some context about whether the situation was different a few blocks, or a few miles, away? And then … some news companies say the complexities of VR force them to stage events – something they may have never done before. Here’s a comment on that from an editor of the New York Times:
Again, it raises the question of what VR is: Actual events? Or their re-creation, maybe with a little variation from the original. All of this is not to criticize the constant experimentation in VR journalism today. There are lots of brands of journalism, and that’s fine when producers are transparent. But we can only gain from making sure the conversation about VR ethics develops as quickly as VR itself
It’s the only way to make sure that VR news comes of age as a responsible and credible form of journalism.
“V.R. usually involves more coordination between
filmmaker and subject than in traditional video
journalism. … a subject may be asked to repeat an
action, or wait until the filmmaker is out of sight to
complete a task.”
– Jake Silverstein, editor, New York Times Magazine
The Associated Press