Ethical implications: a need for updates and fine-tuning

Crisis reporting has traditionally regularly offered journalism ethics cases that are also related to health questions, especially in terms of journalists’safety. Unpredictable and hazardous work environments have caused the deaths of hundreds ofjournalists, not only in war zones, conflict areas, or catastrophe situations, but also when investigating sensitive issues such as corruption and other crimes (Carlsson & Poyhtari 2017). Of course, ever)' death of a journalist is one too many, and signals either too much risk taking or too little protection from the newsrooms and governments.

Stephen Ward (2018) has defined journalism ethics as the “responsible use of the freedom to publish; it is the study and application of the norms that should guide responsible,public journalism”. Ethical considerations, especially by photojournalists, have often concentrated on the use of violent, cruel, and pornographic materials. However, other kinds of ethical issues also exist, such as questions of authenticity, truthfulness, verification, and privacy. These are also all valid concerns for immersive journalism.

Recently, more brutal and graphic images have been shared on social media platforms than have ever been broadcast on news media. But journalism ethics still matter, and all decisions should be based on ethical considerations and professional codes. Journalism ethical standards offer a valuable basis for immersive journalism practices, but, we, to some degree, agree with Ward (2018) that there is indeed a need for some updates and fine-tuning. Ward has emphasized the need to even disrupt traditional journalism ethics due to “the digital media revolution”. He argues that “journalism ethics should become a new, more complex, and conceptually deeper, global ethics for responsible communication” (Ibid.).

In a similar vein, Kathleen Bartzen Culver (2015) has summarized this need for ethical updates in immersive journalism:

In some cases, traditional ethics contested over decades help inform our judgments. But in others, the very immersion itself prompts questions we have not yet tackled in journalism.

Culver 2015

Philosophers Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger (2016, 5) have already warned about the manipulative power ofVR technologies (see also Chapter 7.):

The comprehensive character ofVR plus the potential for the global control of experiential content introduces opportunities for new and especially powerful forms of both mental and behavioral manipulation, especially when commercial, political, religious, or governmental interests are behind the creation and maintenance of the virtual worlds.

Metzinger 2016, 5, 3

As a senior editor at Associated Press,Tom Kent (2015) has predicted: “It’s only a matter of time until VR simulation looks more and more like the actual event”. Therefore, Kent has emphasized the need for transparency and also special VR ethics statements. Furthermore, he has argued that:

Clearly, journalism’s job is to bring human drama alive for distant audiences. But creating empathy is a goal beyond just telling a story. If the ultimate aim is to create emotion, a journalist could be tempted to omit balancing or inconvenient information that could interfere with the desired emotional effect.

Kent 2015

Kent has also started a crowdsourcing project to create a VR journalism code of ethics via the Online Journalism Association. At the time of writing in summer 2019 it only consisted of Kent’s introduction, in which Kent separates two types of VR journalism stories: 1) capturing the reality, or 2) aimed at more than capturing reality, for example, re-creating an actual news event. He writes: “when re-creating a news event that wasn’t captured originally by VR cameras, the ethical issues are even greater”. He also wonders whether VR stories including violence could cause post-traumatic stress in the viewer (Kent 2019).

Dan Robitzski (2017) has argued that many publications’ first experiments with VR raise new ethical considerations, “not only about how these stories are produced, but also about the ways in which audiences experience and remember them”. In the first VR stories, audiences were transported to “less innocuous situations”, such as a war zone or a prison cell in solitary confinement.

Photojournalism ethics, which are based on the notion that the images should not be altered, are solid ground for immersive journalism. Another ethical question is privacy. As the video captures everything in 360-degrees, it can be challenging to hide anything or anybody; everything is on the scene, including tripods and the journalists. One can try to hide or edit content afterwards in post-production, but it raises the question of authenticity. According to Kathleen Bartzen Culver (2015), “privacy is clearly one of the largest ethical considerations for journalists with immersives, especially 360-degree video”. She also reminds us that:

Virtual reality that relies on video capture, for instance, poses the problem of incidental capture. Imagine an immersive experience designed to transport users to a Liberian hospital treating patients with Ebola.

Culver 2015

There are constant ethical ponderings in newsrooms concerning what to show to the audience. However, in 360-degree videos and especially 360-degree real-time streams, it is harder to make any ethical decisions with that pace. In general, people are not yet aware of 360-degree cameras and their capabilities, compared with 2D devices. Also, 360-degree microphones may capture incidentally conversations or comments that are not meant for the public. In this way, the journalist should behave ethically and consider informing people at the scenes being recorded.

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