The impact of emotions in immersive journalism
Turn Uskali and Pasi Ikonen
One of the starting motivations for developing the very concept and practice of immersive journalism was concern about the audiences’ general apathy toward news reporting. As Nonny de la Pena et al. (2010,298) stated in their seminal paper, “An important role of immersive journalism could be to reinstitute the audience’s emotional involvement in current events”. As a documentarist, de la Pena was more familiar with “emotional literacy” than an average news reporter, for example (see Pantti 2010,176).
Virtual reality (VR) experiences indeed trigger emotions more effectively than many traditional forms of media content, according to many scholars (Doyle et al. 2016; Sundar et al. 2017; Bailenson 2018; Schilowitz 2017; Evans 2019, 4.) Therefore, one of the core challenges of immersive journalism, even still in its infancy, is the potential to cause strong emotions, positive and negative, in its audience. Every novel communication form creates new concerns. Like any transformative technology, VR comes with significant risks.
This chapter draws from journalism studies, health sciences, and ethics. We first outline the contemporary emotional turn in journalism studies. Second, we summarize the results of studies of the effects of VR treatments and other health-related issues. Third, we focus on ethical questions in relation to immersive journalism, especially pondering the need for possible updates and fine-tuning for traditional journalism ethics. Finally, based on the aforementioned perspectives we draft some instructions and ethical guidelines for immersive journalism.
The study of emotions is nothing new. Scholars in psychology and sociology were among the pioneers, starting with William James in 1884 (Wahl-Jorgensen 2019,4). According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2019), emotion is a strong mental or instinctive feeling “deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others”. In communication and business studies, marketing has led the way in studying emotions. According to Andrew McStay (2016, 4) “advertising and emotions have always professionally gone hand-in-hand”.
Mervi Pantti (2010,169), who was among the first scholars to examine the role of emotions in journalism, has argued that emotionality in journalism and academic research has typically been seen as lowering the basic standards of the craft. It has been perceived as linked more to entertainment, tabloid journalism, or sensationalism, than serious, fact-based narratives.
There have been several roadblocks to studying emotions in journalism, according to Karin Wahl-Jorgenson (2019, 29-30), especially the professional ideal of objectivity, which has been traditionally defined as “the polar opposite of emotion”. She divides scholarship on journalism and emotion into three categories: 1) understanding how journalistic practices are shaped by emotion and emotional labor, 2) studying emotion in journalistic texts, and 3) studying audience emotional engagement with news (ibid., 30). She concludes that “despite the persistence of the ideal of objectivity, emotional storytelling is, in fact, central to the world-making powers of journalism” (ibid., 35).
Good stories, images, and videos have always captured emotions, and thus emotions have always been explicitly or implicitly present in many journalistic works, especially in longer forms of storytelling, nonfiction human interest stories, and TV documentaries. Crisis reporting has also traditionally offered many emotional experiences via photographs, films, and videos (Pantti 2010,172-173.)
In a similar vein, Chris Peters (2011) has argued that news has always been emotional, but journalists have not been able to show their own emotions, even in times of distress. Furthermore, Peters has emphasized that one of the most significant changes with reference to emotions in journalism practice has been that the “diversity of emotional styles, the acceptability of involvement on behalf of the journalist, and attempts to involve the audience have become more explicit” (ibid., 299).
By focusing on the emotive influences of immersive journalism, this chapter relates to the growing body of research literature that is forming the newest turn in journalism studies: emotion (Pantti 2010; Peters 2011; Beckett & Deuze 2016; Lindgren 2017, 127-144; Wahl-Jorgensen 2019; Nikunen 2019.) Moreover, the term “affective turn” is already in scholarly use (Lindgren 2017, 127; Wahl- Jorgenson 2019, 30).
Charlie Beckett and Mark Deuze (2016, 1) have argued, for example, that “as journalism and society change, emotion is becoming a much more important dynamic in how news is produced and consumed”. Interestingly, Beckett and Deuze have not referred directly to VR, potentially the most immersive and emotional new technology available for journalistic storytelling.