Virtual reality is one of the most exciting advancements in storytelling over the past few years. Like any knew advancement, the technology presents a number of ethical questions that need to be addressed.
The New York Times pushed virtual reality into the mainstream in November, when the news organization sent more than one million inexpensive VR viewers to subscribers. The distribution of the viewers coincided with the debut of “The Displaced,” which is a VR film about children from three war-torn countries.
The point of VR is not just to tell a story, but to help viewers understand the messages through immersion. The Times’ investment in VR was met with great fanfare, but also concern, according to the paper’s then-Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.
“Many Times readers were excited by what they experienced and sent congratulatory notes,” she wrote. “But not everyone was pleased,” she added later.
Aside from adapting to the new technology, one of the main complaints about VR is that production requires a closer interaction between journalist and subject than other methods of storytelling.
Unlike traditional news photography , VR requires journalists to strategically place cameras settings and then quickly leave the area. They must also coordinate with subjects to get special footage from bikes, cars and boats.
While those concerns are valid, it’s difficult to say that VR is more intrusive than other forms of visual media. Longform video and photography projects require some intrusiveness, and those boundaries are still debated more than a century after the introduction of both technologies.
More complicated ethical problems may present themselves when the cameras stop filming, and a journalist finds himself in the editing room.
One of the most pressing questions is how much is too much? Like traditional photography and video, VR may show the horrors of war, terrorism and other horrible events. Journalists editing VR films have to ask if the threshold of what can be shown is lower due to the immersive nature of the technology.
“VR coverage of war, torture, rape and other violence will prompt searing questions about lasting consequences of consuming journalism that eclipse our current research on media effects,” she writes.
Bartzen Culver also quotes Dan Pacheco, of the S.I. Newhouse journalism school at Syracuse University. He suggests keeping subjects and audiences in mind more than the possibilities of the technology.
At the end of the day, a good discussion over the ethical challenges of each new VR project may help direct journalists to the most responsible actions.
Some important questions can include:
- Is VR the right way to tell this story?
- What is the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable interaction with subjects?
- What is the limit of what is acceptable for VR viewers to see?
- Who may be especially affected by the immersive experience of this story?
Of course, there are a number of questions that could and should be considered before and during a VR project. The key is open conversation between all journalists and editors.
Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.