How Journalists Are Using Virtual Reality to Create Empathy

Data journalism has come a long way over the last 100 years. Information that used to rely on graphs and charts is now conveyed through interactive media, maps and – more and more frequently – virtual reality.

But complex journalism can mean more than numbers. And sometimes numbers tell a story that can’t be told effectively with text and data alone.

That’s why journalists are increasingly using VR. It has the capacity to evoke an awareness of situations audiences wouldn’t get through the traditional combination of text, image and video.

This form of immersive content is often referred to as spacial journalism. It’s something journalist Mike Cadoux believes could soon have audiences “walking through a war zone,” or “standing next to Mick Jagger on stage.”

CNN has been working with VR since 2017. Tweet by Sean Gardner, @2morrowknight.

So, how did we get here?

Virtual reality appeared in mainstream journalism shortly after the release of the Oculus Rift. By mid-2015, news agencies around the world were churning out basic VR stories.

In April, The Wall Street Journal released ‘Is the Nasdaq in Another Bible,’ a 3D roller-coaster that visually displayed the rise and fall of the electronic exchange. It was nominated for the 2016 Data Journalism Awards.

The experience was simple – rising and falling with the graph and observing notable facts along the way. But it provided a glimpse at the potential VR had to convey statistics.

In 2016, The Guardian released 6×9, “a virtual experience of solitary confinement.” Rather than complex statistics, they wanted to convey an emotional reaction.

The Guardian states that 6×9 wanted to “highlight the psychological toll on those subjected to such harsh incarceration.” In December, the piece won gold in the British Arrows Craft awards for VR.

The audio is made up of “genuine prison sounds” shot by PBS, which includes “haunting screams of fellow prisoners who cannot be seen…along with moaning, shouting, banging, clanging.”

The Guardian have released versions of 6×9 that can be viewed without VR goggles. Video from The Guardian, YouTube.

But VR was being used by journalists before this. Prior to the commercial release of the Oculus Rift and devices like it, those with the means to do so were working on their own ways to deliver VR journalism.

Nonny de la Peña is widely considered the ‘Godmother of Virtual Reality.’ In 2012, she worked with later-to-be Oculus Rift developer Palmer Luckey to create Hunger in Los Angeles, a short film about a man going into diabetic shock at a Los Angeles food bank.

Peña claims that she wanted to “go beyond the reporting and focus on the experience wherein people could virtually transport themselves.”

And this is something we are seeing more of. According to Forbes contributor Sol Rogers, immersive technology like VR has the capacity to “reshape storytelling and reporting.”

Rogers believes that VR is “more impactful and memorable than traditional journalism.” Putting people at the centre of issues, he says, builds empathy. New tech, not to mention, is always relevant.

In 2016, the Global Investigative Journalism Network published their findings about VR journalism. They highlighted spatial issues as a factor of consderation.

Too much text, for example, can make viewers feel sick.

More tips are being shared among journalists as VR becomes more accessible. Tweet by European Journalism Centre, @ejcnet.

Creating a reality, however, is more complex than an infographic or a map. As a result, VR journalism is currently mainly used by major economic media competitors and tech-savvy entrepreneurs.

But immersive technologies are advancing quickly. Each piece of content created so far has allowed journalists and developers to test the limits of these technologies, and in turn, audience reaction.

Now, secondary platforms like Google VR’s Tour Creator have made VR programming accessible to a wider audience. Even freelancers without coding experience can start using immersive journalism.

But coding isn’t the only hurdle in creating VR. The Guardian’s 6×9, for example, required significant research and interviewing before an accurate representation of solitary confinement could be created.

According to The Drum, the project was “painstakingly researched,” including interviewing seven inmates along with academic psychologists to “to find out more about the psychological effects of the practice.”

Just like when writing, it’s vital to get things right.

To learn more about VR journalism, check the following sources.

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