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Journalism needs help — and mixed reality is coming to the rescue

Traditional print journalism is dying, fast. According to statistics published by Pew Research, hundreds of daily newspapers have been scratched off the national roster since the 1970s, and about a third of the United States’ largest papers have suffered layoffs since 2017. The industry is struggling to stay alive. We have short attention spans and closed wallets; readers would prefer to find their headlines on Facebook or The Skimm, rather than their local newspaper stand — if one still exists at all. Consumers today want news and entertainment that’s worth stopping an endless Twitter scroll for — news that’s interesting enough to make them, well, interested.

But what if we could bring the engagement of entertainment and the immersion of VR gaming with the value and information of traditional news reporting? Imagine that rather than skimming over an article on immigration reform, you could stand with the reporters at the border, see what they see, and experience the story firsthand.

Would having a chance to live through the story be enough make them want to stay until the end? Could adding some of the best aspects of video games revitalize interest in the news?

Immersive journalism: A new hope?

Immersive journalism — the practice of using augmented or virtual reality technologies to create an experiential news story — might sound like a sci-fi gimmick, but the idea has been a constant in the sector for decades. The first reported use of such practices occurred in 1997, when a team of students at Columbia University’s Center for New Media used an omnidirectional camera to create a 360° video of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization’s protest at their exclusion from the 1997 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York.

Since then, the specialty has evolved to create poignant, affecting, and immersive news stories. In 2012, the first immersive documentary, Nonny de la Peña’s Hunger in Los Angeles, debuted at Sundance to critical acclaim. The film, which centered on the desperate lack of food in some LA neighborhoods, was reportedly so effective in bringing viewers into the narrative that it moved some audience members to tears. As one writer for UploadVR reflects on the emotional impact of Peña’s portfolio, “Her pioneering work often transports viewers into uncomfortable situations – such as a line for food handouts outside a shelter in L.A., where you see a man collapsing from hunger next to you – and makes them rethink their outlook on often-controversial issues.”

These are emotionally impactful, engaging, and fascinating pieces — and as such, they have picked up traction in mainstay media. Today, Peña’s immersive journalism studio, Emblematic, has established partnerships with several major news sites and prominent organizations, including the New York Times, PBS Frontline, the Wall Street Journal, True Colors Fund, Planned Parenthood, and NOVA.

The immersive, first-person nature of VR-powered news makes every story feel real and important; it makes us want to tune into the news and think. The emotional connection immersive stories forge with their consumers may be the key to inspiring a resurgence of and widespread appreciation for journalistic storytelling. However, each story must be created with a first-person, player-like perspective in mind to achieve the necessary degree of emotional impact.

I was there; therefore, it is real and matters

As one can gather from the story referenced above, immersive journalism tends to do more than share information — it conveys a message. As avatars in the “game” of the reported narrative, news consumers are quite literally in a position to care about what they see. They can’t passively flick past text or distance themselves from printed statistics; the experiences they have can leave emotional echoes even when viewers pull off their headsets — that is, if the perspective of the narrative is oriented to make the viewer feel like an involved character.

One study published in a 2018 issue of Frontiers of Robotics and AI found that participants who were given a virtual body and the ability to look around and meet virtual characters’ gazes “increased presence […] by enhancing the illusion of place as well as plausibility.” Researchers also reported that those who had virtual “bodies” also tended to seek more information about the real-world situation that the VR experience depicted for longer than those who did not have a virtual avatar or the ability to look around.

This uptick in care falls in line with an idea that underpins the psychology of philanthropy: identification. As a whole, people tend to care more about stories with identifiable victims than they do generalized causes and statistics. A participant in the above study might skim the statistics associated with the hardships illegal immigrants face in a printed news story and be relatively unaffected. However, when they experience the same story in VR, they might find that they can’t get the gaze of one of the immigrants they interacted with “in-story” out of their mind. Once they experience the cause “firsthand,” they develop an empathetic connection to the material and feel more internal pressure to care and take action.

Interestingly, this study, as well as another research paper published in a 2019 issue of Immersive Journalism and Telepresence, found that experiencing a story in 360° VR boosts not only viewers’ engagement but also the credibility of the subject matter depicted.

In other words: once news consumers experience a story via immersive journalism, that story tends to have more reality to it. Viewers think, consciously or not, “I was there; therefore, it is real, and it matters.”

However, this VR-delivered sense of reality and viewer urgency comes with a few potential traps that journalists of the future will need to consider.

Building objective ‘reality’ in an era of third-party funding and fake news

Immersive stories are considerably more expensive to produce than the average article. Creators and viewers alike need to have specialized equipment to craft and view narratives, respectively. While technological advancements have made some of that equipment more accessible, the process of creating even one VR experience requires a great deal of time and funding. For some major media companies, it may also require a financial model overhaul.

To quote Varun Shetter, the Business and Operations Lead for VR at the New York Times, in a recent Reuters report, “I think [NYT] has really focused on becoming a subscription-first business. We also rely on our advertising revenue, but we think that VR could be an active revenue stream in the future. And that’s something that we’re exploring now, whether it’s through advertisers, or through relationships with platforms. We’re trying to suss out whether there is a full business case for VR.”

As Shetty explains, there are funding options available. However, there may be a hidden — or not-so-hidden — aim tucked away in those funding dollars. We see this with Emblematic; Peña’s studio often partners with a third-party organization to create media experiences that align with that organization’s core values and seek to inspire action from viewers. The community spirit and thought Emblematic inspires is laudable, but it also opens us to an uncomfortable question — what responsibility do news organizations and immersive creators have to create wholly-objective stories even when they receive funding from third-party interests?

To be fair, this is a question that news creators have confronted for decades. However, given that researchers have found that VR-framed news stories tend to hold more credibility, create more of an empathetic connection, and inspire more action than traditional journalism tends to, I would argue that it’s a concern that deserves particular attention. As one researcher notes in an ethics report for Frontiers of Robotics and AI, “At heart, the issue is one of being able to differentiate between visual journalism and advertising or propaganda, and this has to do with the aspirations of journalists to above all convey events as truthfully as possible.”

Most journalists at major news organizations like The New York Times will likely put objective reporting and journalistic integrity front and center, even when they produce emotionally-affecting stories. However, as America’s “fake news” epidemic indicates, not everyone who circulates “news stories” adheres to the principles of journalistic integrity. Viral online conspiracy theories like Pizzagate can prompt violence in the real world. Given that immersive storytelling technology inculcates credibility and inspires action, what will happen if or when faked stories are brought to life in VR?

It bears thinking about.

The connective principles of immersive, game-experiential journalism could revitalize the journalism industry from the decline of print. It may even bring readers back into touch with the very roots of journalism by giving reporters the tools they need to highlight unspoken stories and compel community action. However, this high potential for achievement comes with a caveat. Prominent entities within the industry will need to create funding models that can support news creation without compromising objectivity and do more to combat the spread of emotionally-effective, VR-powered fake news. Otherwise, we risk losing the very integrity and value that high-quality journalism provides to the flash of high-tech, manipulative sensationalism.

Kenny Kline is the founder and Managing Director of JAKK Media, a niche media web company. He is a serial entrepreneurial focused on digital marketing and health media.

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