Be accountable and transparent in the immersive world

According to the SPJ Code of Ethics (2014), “[ejthical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public”. Because the imagery in Project Syria was computer-generated, fact-checking the sources would be complicated. Despite the producers’ tedious research of factual events, how is the public supposed to trust that the events in Project Syria depict what really happened in Aleppo? Would it be possible, in VR, for the journalists to be fully accountable and transparent in their storytelling? These are questions that are broadly discussed, but the community is still not close to any practical solutions, as VR and reality are increasingly merging inVR productions.

De la Pena argues that trueVR is “deep immersive”, and that“[t]he fundamental idea of immersive journalism is to allow the participant to actually enter a virtually re-created scenario representing the news story” (de la Pena et al. 2010, 292). Aronson-Rath et al. (2015) emphasize that the promise to journalists is thatVR will offer audiences greater factual understanding of a topic:

[VJirtual reality offers the promise of further breaking the “fourth wall” of journalism, wherein those represented become individuals processing agency, rather than what Liisa Malkki has referred to as “speechless emissaries”.

Aronson-Rath et ai 2015

The authors argue that there are two aspects in particular that differentiate VR journalism from other kinds of conventional journalism: immersion and presence. Presence is defined as the feeling of being there, and is achieved “when one reacts to a virtual environment as he or she would to a physical world” (Aronson-Rath et al. 2015). According to Sirkkunen et al. (2016), presence “refers to the sense of being there, a state of consciousness, which has even been claimed to be the central goal of virtual reality”. It is about the subjective feeling of how realistic a place is, and it is about observations of how people act similarly to how they would in a real environment. There is: 1) Place illusion, 2) The sensation of being and operating at a remote or virtual place, and 3) Plausibility (feeling that what is happening is really happening).

Aronson-Rath et al. (2015) define immersion as “the feeling that someone has left his or her immediate, physical world, and entered into a virtual environment”. Two of the factors that promote immersion are the ease of interaction and how realistic the images are. Sirkkunen et al. (2016) describe immersion as “the extent to which the computer displays are capable of delivering an inclusive, extensive, surrounding and vivid illusion of reality”. To rephrase the definitions in a simpler manner: Immersion is the ability to investigate the story, and presence is the feeling of actually being there.

When considering the journalistic content presented and consumed with VR technologies, the highest level of exactness is created visually by 360-degree videos. High-quality graphics can create seemingly realistic sensations visually in limited spaces. De la Pena et al. (2010) claim that in VR, people respond to what is happening in immersive virtual environments as if they were happening in our world, even when they know they are not real. The authors find it surprising that “this response-as-if-real occurs even though the level of fidelity with respect to everyday physical reality is severely reduced” (293-294). In deep interactive journalism,“the participant can feel that his or her actual location has been transformed to the location of the news story, and more importantly their actual body has transformed, becoming a central part of the news story itself” (de la Pena et al. 2010, 293). This kind of deep immersion makes ethics even more important, as faulty information might potentially have wide-ranging implications if the user gets confused and is convinced that certain events actually happened.

Concluding remarks

In this chapter, we have discussed reoccurring ethical challenges of using CGI in immersive journalism. Through a case study ofNonny de la Pena’s pioneering VR production, Project Syria, it emerged that with new technologies, such as VR, issues of journalistic accuracy are in constant flux. No standards are currently set, and codes of ethics are only partially helpful in practice. While immersive journalism is becoming a powerful approach to engaging and influencing news audiences, the boundaries between journalism and other approaches to VR storytelling are increasingly blurred. Presence and immersion might leave viewers more vulnerable to the creators’ potentially biased messages.

The analysis indicates that in Project Syria, journalistic accuracy, accountability, and transparency emerged as the most challenging dilemmas to deal with. These findings are somewhat paradoxical, as these virtues are considered particular advantages of immersive journalism.

At this point in the CGI history of immersive journalism, it is still possible for viewers to see a difference between the real world and virtual environments. Most enthusiasts agree, however, that CGI is just the beginning. When we can no longer distinguish the virtual from reality, ethical frameworks that can be adhered to will truly become imperative.


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