Project Syria: Accuracy in immersive journalism

Siri Flatlandsmo and Astrid Cynnild

This chapter investigates opportunities and dilemmas in VR journalism through a case study of Nonny de la Pena’s pioneering production, Project Syria, from 2014. Project Syria exemplifies a computer-generated imagery (CGI) experience that prompts crucial journalism concerns that still await further discussion. While de la Pena and the Emblematic Group envisioned initiating an empathetic wake-up call through innovative technological means, this case study investigates in what ways and to what extent the VR story potentially deviates from established norms of accurate journalism.

This chapter zeroes in on the particular journalism challenges of using CGI in VR by applying the main principles of a well-established code-of-ethics program in journalism. Our point of departure is thus the application of the 35 bullet points provided by the American Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), last updated in 2014.

A crucial question in this chapter is how journalists “seek truth and report it”, “minimize harm”,“act independently”, and, at the same time, strive to “be accountable and transparent” when doing journalism based on CGI.

Moreover, it is pertinent to question to what extent a journalism code of ethics, albeit one that has been renewed regularly since 1909, can actually serve as a relevant guideline for new technologies such as VR. Does it really make sense, at present, to maintain the normative divides between journalism as a truth-seeking approach to reality and other forms of CGI? The aim of this case study is to highlight in what ways VR specifically challenges established principles of ethics in journalism. Perhaps most importantly, the goal is to reflect on how journalists maintain their journalistic integrity while experimenting with new technologies in a time of ethical flux.

Issues of what constitutes journalism are increasingly up for renegotiation and professional boundary work (Carlson & Lewis 2020). In these cyclical rhetorical battles, discussants often push forward the ethical guidelines of journalism, understood as the existing global body of journalism ethics. A growing number of researchers and practitioners have voiced the need for updating and further developing journalism ethics in tandem with, in particular, the experimenting with emerging technological innovations (Bartzen Culver 2015; Johnson 2020; Kent 2015; Robitzski 2017; Ward 2019). However, few attempts have so far been made thus to implement new ethical norms in practice.

According to Raney Aronson-Rath of the PBS investigative series Frontline, which received a Knight Foundation grant to explore VR production and ethics with the Emblematic Group, “no established set of standards and ethics around applying journalism inVR environments currently exists” (Seijo 2017). As further pointed out by Deborah G. Johnson (see Chapter 7), during such a state of interpretive flexibility, many actors are engaged in pushing and pulling a new technology' in different directions, and they negotiate “about the meaning of what is being developed as well as about designs and uses” (Chapter 7, p. 165).Throughout history', various ethical codes sets have served as professional guidelines for what constitutes good journalism. The detailed guidelines are typically developed and taken care of by journalism organizations themselves; these guidelines vary from country to country', albeit with truth and accuracy seeming to be basic requirements. In the United States, the SPJ is dedicated to “encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior” (Spj. org 2019).

As Project Syria was created mostly in the United States by an American team, our deliberately naive point of departure is thus the expectation that de la Pena and her crew created the piece in alignment with established ethical norms in their country. The SPJ was founded in 1909, with the mission to maintain a free press in the United States. The argument was that because “the concept of self- government outlined by the U.S. Constitution remains a reality into future centuries, the American people must be well informed in order to make decisions regarding their lives, and their local and national communities” ( 2019).The SPJ is dedicated to stimulating high standards of ethical behavior in the practice of journalism.Their Code of Ethics, which journalists are expected to follow, is revised regularly, the last update having taken place in 2014.

Project Syria is an early computer-generated VR production that, in reality, represented a breakthrough for what was coined immersive journalism. De la Pena applies the term “immersive journalism” on her YouTube channel when talking about Project Syria. De la Pena claims that “|i]t’s an extraordinary opportunity to be building an immersive journalism piece about Syrian children refugees. This is one of the most pressing issues of our time” (de la Pena 2014). Only two y'ears earlier, in 2012, de la Pena and the Emblematic Group produced the first-ever walk-around VR documentary, Hunger in Los Angeles (Who We Are 2016). Project Syria, however, was specifically developed for the World Economic Forum in Davos, an event that engages societal leaders to “shape global, regional and industry agendas” (Our Mission -The World Economic Forum 2019).

Before we dive into more details on the production, just envision going a few years back in history, before immersion became a hot topic, and imagine the following virtual jump: You are standing in your own living room, looking around at everything familiar. Then, you put on a headset packed with the latest VR technology. Suddenly, you are standing on a buzzing street in war-torn Aleppo, Syria. When you turn around, all you can see is this unfamiliar place, people you have never seen before, but you know you are there; you can hear a girl singing. Then, a bomb explodes.

There are three scenes in Project Syria. First, the viewers are put in the middle of a street in Aleppo. A girl is singing, and a bomb explodes somewhere close by. Chaos spreads. The second scene witnesses a food shortage at a food bank. In the third scene, the viewers are transported to a refugee camp in Jordan that slowly fills up with more and more tents and ghostlike refugees. Throughout the piece, a male voice is explaining the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Syria (Ekos VR Experiences 2016). In the following analysis, the 35 bullet points of the SPJ Code of Ethics are grouped in four categories: 1) Seek the truth and report it, 2) Minimize harm, 3) Act independently, and 4) Be accountable and transparent (SPJ Code of Ethics, 2014).

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