Words have always been the medium through which journalists connect readers with tragedy. We as journalists learn to paint pictures and craft sounds and create scenery through language, attempting to bring empathy and understanding and learning to our audiences.
Immersive journalism, which uses virtual reality to literally bring readers into the story, is a relatively new but widely expanding way to do journalism.
What is Virtual Reality
Virtual reality today can exist on multiple levels. One of the most accessible versions of this technology came from the New York Times in 2015. According to their press release, they sent over one million Google Cardboard Viewers to readers.
The glasses can be used with a reader’s smartphone to become submerged in specific stories using an app.
Other versions of virtual reality allow you to stand up and walk around and even interact by opening doors, etc.
According to How It Works, virtual reality is often called virtual environment because it should be so immersive, a user forgets actual reality. The more advanced and in-depth the experience, the more effective.
What Virtually Reality Isn’t
Although 360 images and video give viewers a detailed image of surroundings and let’s the audience see more than traditional photos or video, it’s not the same thing as virtual reality.
Virtual reality is more than just an interactive video because it allows the viewer to look in any direction and see what someone would see if they were actually there.
The Benefits of Immersive Journalism
It creates empathy.
The gap between journalism and virtual reality was first bridged by Nonny de la Peña in 2012. The most popular piece she’s ever done is called Project Syria. The project focused on showing people what it’s actually like to be on the streets of Syria during crisis.
The hope is that by putting people into the shoes of the Syrian people, people can see what it would be like in a place torn by war.
De la Peña has worked on numerous other projects with virtual reality, including one that features hunger in Los Angeles and a recreation of the killing of Michael Brown.
These immersive journalism projects are crafted to create a sense of empathy with their viewers. Giving people the experience is more effective than writing about it or even showing them pictures.
Research done outside the field of journalism supports this theory as well. A journal published by Sage Journals supports this idea that immersive journalism is more influential and empathizing than traditional journalism.
It inspires change.
According to de la Peña, viewers of immersive journalism are more likely to make a difference after experiencing one of these virtual realities than people who just read regular news stories.
Because of the heavy impact that these have on people, people will be more inclined to make a change.
She created her projects with immersive journalism to inspire and bring change to important issues that are better felt than read or simply seen on a television screen.
The Trouble With Virtual Reality
Keeping the “reality” in virtual reality
Because immersive journalism requires so much detail and work, journalists have to work harder than ever to recreate events as accurate as possible.
Immersive journalism relies heavily on multiple audio streams, videos, CGI, and images. Creators have to use all of these things to create an experience for their viewers. How can viewers be sure what they’re seeing is true?
With all of the details that are involved in creating immersive journalism there is bound to be some discrepancies. It’s up to the journalists to decide the margin of error that is acceptable before giving viewers something so powerful.
The cost and time.
Although the New York Times sent their readers Google glasses for some of their immersive stories, truly immersive journalism requires a more in-depth experience and more expensive equipment.
The work that de la Peña creates requires time and money to create. It can take months to recreate scenes accurately and teams of people much larger than most newsrooms can afford to pay.
How accessible is it?
Although immersive journalism is still incredibly young, it isn’t very widespread. I have never experienced or had the opportunity to experience truly immersive journalism like the work done by de la Peña.
News is supposed to be for the public, but if only certain people are gaining access to this new kind of journalism, it’s not doing its job.
Journalists have to find a way to make this more accessible in order for it to be truly powerful.
So what does all of this mean?
Immersive journalism is still in its early stages of creation. Although it has some foreseeable issues, there are so many unforeseen advances that can made in the field of technology that it’s nearly impossible to say what journalists will be able to do.
It has the potential to create changes and give viewers a perspective they would never have otherwise.
Only time can tell what this field has in store for all of us.