Minimize harm by not risking safety
According to the SPJ Code of Ethics (2014), “[ejthical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect”. As the humanitarian crises in Syria continued, it became more difficult to provide documentary video stories, and the advantages of animating virtual environments became clearer. As a VR enthusiast put it, “thanks to the rapidly growing world of virtual reality technology, there is now a way to put people outside Syria on the ground in the middle of the war without risking their safety” (Malmo 2014).
By the very nature of computer graphics, the persons depicted in Project Syria were anonymous. According to the Code of Ethics, anonymity should be reserved for sources who may face danger, and journalists should identify sources clearly, because “|t|he public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources” (SPJ Code of Ethics 2019). However, full anonymity was not provided, as the audio was real and could still be recognized.
Anonymity which could be provided via computer graphics could be considered a good way to minimize harm because it protects the sources. With Project Syria, it could also be important to consider the safety of the people on the receiving end of the product, as they prepare for undertaking the role of eyewitnesses to traumatic events. Balancing the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort is an important part ofjournalism. As pointed out by Aronson-Rath et al. (2015), “virtual reality can create feelings of‘social presence’ - the feeling that a user is really ‘there’ - which can engender far greater empathy for the subject than in any other media representations”. Because of the added feeling of presence, some viewers might find Project Syria difficult to watch. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogant or unduly intrusive behavior. At the same time, exactly what makes the video grueling to watch, according to de la Pena, is why it works well. She points out that the participant “is afforded unprecedented access to the sights and sounds, and possibly, the feelings and emotions that accompany the news” (de la Pena et al. 2010, 292).
Act independently through newsgames
The third category of the SPJ Code of Ethics (2014) guides reporters to act independently, and states that “[t]he highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public”. For journalists to serve the public, the public needs to know that what they see is actually a piece of journalism. More often than not, CGI environments are associated with VR gaming, which operates far from journalism in most cases. Newsgames, by contrast, are games that “utilize the medium with the intention of participating in the public debate” (Treanor & Mateas 2009,1). Newsgames are “not seeking to state a specific political agenda, but instead to shape the space of opinions about a current event for a group of citizens with a shared vision of public interest” (ibid., 1). Project Syria, however, nearly dictates what the viewers are supposed to feel through a male voice. This is a problem if Project Syria is considered to be journalism, but not if it is a game. Newsgames are supposed to “report and communicate about current events in a manner consistent with the theories and traditions of journalism” (Treanor & Mateas 2009, l).The authors suggest that newsgames serve the same role as political cartoons in a video game context.
Do these clarifications imply that a journalistic VR product can be considered a newsgame as well? Once more, it becomes apparent that clarifying the genre is of great importance. While a person looking at a political cartoon will normally be aware of the biased context, a person participating in a newsgame may not recognize the bias. If the viewers know a VR production is a game, they will most likely not expect it to present facts. If they know it is journalism, they will expect to get validated information; for journalism to serve the public, the public must be familiar with the form and genre it is presented in.
A pertinent question to raise next is whether Project Syria has more in common with a newsgame than with other journalism genres. Computer games are, as other interactive media, “different from VR in that they are not necessarily immersive” (Aronson-Rath et al. 2015). According to the founder of OculusVR, Palmer Lucker, games are becoming more and more realistic, and have been building up to VR for a long time (CNN Business 2015). Darfur is Dying, for example, is an online game situated in a refugee camp in Sudan, in which the player uses the keyboard to avoid getting caught while fetching water for the family. This story is a newsgame meant to “increase empathy for victims of genocide by positioning the player within a game environment where the hazards refer to actual tragedy” (de la Pena et al. 2010, 293). This description fits well with Project Syria if we take into account that empathy is one of the main goals of the production.
Project Syria was first installed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum for five days in June 2014 (Kasson 2015). Although de la Pena’s work gets distributed via installations in appropriate locations, it does not have any kind of established channel where audiences can find her stories easily. With the lack of better platforms to publish Project Syria, the Emblematic Group uploaded the video to the gaming website Steam, where anyone could download it for free (Store.steampowered.com 2013). Here, one can observe what expectations do to the experience of a product. When Project Syria was uploaded to Steam, the gamers expected it to be a game.
On Steam (Store.steampowered.com 2013), users can rate and review the games. Even the users who gave the journalistic VR product a “thumbs up” rating did not like it much. A user named “kasperhviid” wrote:
The immersion doesn’t kick in. Even free, this simply isn’t worth it. However, the basic idea of using VR to make a human connection to people and groups we only see described in dry news feeds is the kind of unexplored possibilities that makes me get exited [sir] about VR. Also, thisVR experience annoyed a lot of racist nutters! For these reasons, I clicked the thumbs up - this is the kind of stuff that gives me hope for our future. But don’t download - instead, imagine what this could have been.
In a similar tone,“stuttlepress” commented:
They say a VR headset can be an “empathy machine”. This is an attempt toward that goal. It’s a few very brief scenes documenting the humanitarian crisis in Syria. It feels like something that might be played on a loop in a kiosk as part of a larger exhibit. This is not a very polished experience. It is interesting for its aspirations more than for what it actually achieves.
These gamers gave a “thumbs up” rating and pointed out options for optimizing the video as a game. However, they do not appear to be impressed. In general, Project Syria got poor reviews on the graphics, and was also accused of being “blatant propaganda” (Store.steampowered.com 2013). Other respondents voiced that Project Syria had no reason to be on a gaming platform. This may be true, because Project Syria was, not, according to de la Pena (2014), supposed to be a game.The bad reviews on the gaming platform could be more a matter of expectations attributed to the distribution platform than a reflection on the product itself.
One of Emblematic Group’s goals when creating this journalistic VR product was to emphasize discussion of the humanitarian crisis among the world’s most powerful people (VICE Motherboard 2014). De la Pena claims,“ifwe make people understand how difficult these circumstances are, perhaps they can actually start to think about what kind of change they, too, can help bring about” (de la Pena 2014). This desire to better the Syrians’ circumstances places the VR production close to propaganda or, at best, advocacy journalism; that is, journalism that advocates a cause or expresses a viewpoint. Advocacy journalism might be an issue if the ultimate aim is to create emotion, because a journalist could be tempted to omit balancing or inconvenient information that could interfere with the desired emotional effect (Kent 2015). If empathy is the goal, the journalists must have an idea of what they want the viewers to feel.
Another aspect of“acting independently” relates to perspectivizing news events. Project Syria does not present different perspectives on the topic. The video does not accuse anyone of causing the misery we are witnessing through the headset. Project Syria is a short experience, and not many words are spoken. The most frequently used words are “children”, “refugee” and “Syrians”. There is no information that might explain why Syrian children become refugees, nor do we get any other verbal perspectives on the war. This lack of narration supports the impression of Project Syria as a piece of advocacy journalism or even borderline propaganda. Even though one-sided journalism is widespread on all platforms, the tendency to highlight only one side of a story is especially problematic in immersive journalism, with its strong emphasis on empathy. The founder of Oculus VR reflects on the new ethics dilemmas in this way:
It’s going to be important for people to understand that just because something looks real in virtual reality does not necessarily mean it actually is real. You shouldn’t assume it’s real unless they are telling you, “This is unaltered, real, actual captured footage, and we haven’t done anything.” Without the assurance, you don’t want to be falling into the trap of seeing something in VR, and because you feel like you’re in the scene, saying, “This is how it actually happened.”
CNN Business 2015
The blurring ofVR with the real world strengthens the importance of ethics for immersive journalists. Journalists are supposed to “ [distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two” (SPJ Code of Ethics, 2019). As de la Pena and her crew had a clearly expressed agenda, namely to create empathy with the Syrian refugees, it raises the question of whether the journalists serve the public or the Syrian victims only. At the same time, it should be noted that the same issues hold for other journalism genres as well, particularly the coverage of war zones or other tragic circumstances.