The perils of “being-there” in virtual reality journalism

Dr Leighton Evans is Senior Lecturer in Media Theory at Swansea University. He has written and published on social media, location-based social networking, webnography, management systems, smart logistics and smart cities.
Twitter: @leightonevans 

I couldn’t make it to London on Friday July 13 of this year to see the launch of the infamous ‘Trump Baby’. By meticulously avoiding of the centre of London, the President himself missed it too. However, thanks to the CNN Virtual Reality (VR) application and my Oculus Rift headset, I could experience being part of the crowd and part of the event as an embodied observer in a news report covering the rally.

The significance of this? Well, it is certainly very different from watching a news report. To take the position of a part of the crowd in this way is to be offered a different subject position as an audience member consuming the news. While it is tempting to be hyperbolic and suggest that one is ‘living the event’ through VR journalism, that is not what is happening here and not how the experience feels for the user.

Instead, I am offered (and I am taking) a different perspective on the news segment and can experience the report in a different manner than just passively watching the same events reported on cable TV. There is a novelty value to this new subject position – if I turn around, I can see the event from different positions, seeing different crowd members and different placards abusing Trump. These are views not possible when watching on TV or my phone.

In some ways, this feels like I am editing my own experience of the Trump demonstration – but this is exactly where alarms should sound. I am no more editing this presentation of the rally than I am if I blink during a news broadcast on television. I am afforded a subject position in the VR experience, but that subject position has been chosen for me, and carefully selected and edited to present a view and version of events which I am then ‘thrown’ into, without consultation or prior knowledge of what that position will be.

So, while I am experiencing a news story in a new and quite engaging way, this news story has been as carefully edited and selected to present a narrative version of events as any other. No doubt, if Fox News was offering a VR story on the same event, the embodied position and experience I would be enjoying would be quite different. But the feeling of control and a sense of ‘being there’ is, however fleetingly, a powerful and arresting experience.

The potential trap with VR – and particularly with the reporting of real events in immersive journalism using VR – is in believing that the powerful experience that VR can generate is not subject to the biases, ideologies and subjectivities that affect other media just because we feel that we are there. There is an argument that VR can provide new contours to mediated experiences that would be beneficial to journalism. VR evangelists can claim that it will increase empathy with others through the embodied subjectivity of the other that we can experience. Some claim that VR will offer experiences that we could not have any other way, such as being in London on the Trump demo when I’m sitting in an office in Swansea.

VR could take us into warzones, or into the heart of refugee crises and transform the understanding of these events. The question, we might ask, is whether it should. The unique selling point of VR is a new and unparalleled level of immersion in comparison with other mediums. Immersive journalism should then, if this is correct, increase a sense of presence and emotional engagement with the content of journalism which is a key concern in times of political apathy and susceptibility to fake news.

VR is not a panacea though, and requires very close scrutiny thanks to the possibilities it affords. I’m impressed with the ‘being-there’ part of the Trump demonstration undoubtedly, but this is not at the sake of important questions about the kind of ideologies and narratives being constructed in the VR report – like any other journalistic report. While immersive journalism in VR can offer a new perspective the questions of standards and ethics that are critical in both the construction of and reception of journalism will still apply – arguably, to be joined by an entirely new set of questions on standards and ethics.

The power of VR to engage and immerse resonates with a desire to increase the emotional impact of journalism, but this must also reaffirm the need for stringent analysis and critique of content and editorial judgement, even more so if people do feel that the experiences offered through VR journalism are ‘more real’ than traditional media can offer.