Promises and perils in immersive journalism

Deborah G. Johnson

Immersive journalism (IJ) is said to offer exciting new opportunities for storytelling by providing audiences with the experience of being present in real-world situations, experiences that are more intense and intimate than other modes of journalism such as written text or film (de la Pena et al. 2010; Aronson-Rath et al. 2015; Sirkkunen et al. 2016). A growing literature on this new form of journalism attends to an array of questions about how various kinds of equipment work, what empathy is, how participants respond, whether IJ is more effective, and more.The discourse is rife with discussion of the potential and the significance of IJ for journalists, journalism, and audiences.

The term “immersive journalism” is used broadly to refer to storytelling that uses a variety of equipment ranging from virtual reality systems with headsets and other haptic devices, to multiple flatscreen set-ups, to 360-degree video and more. In this chapter the focus is primarily on storytelling that uses virtual reality (VR) equipment, though much of the analysis is relevant to other forms of IJ.

In this chapter the discourse around IJ is critically examined with IJ viewed as an emerging technology. The chapter positions this examination as an exercise in anticipatory ethics and a form of responsible research and innovation (RRI). As is apt for an emerging technology', IJ discourse tends to emphasize the promises and perils of future development; hence, this chapter critically examines two of the major promises and their correlated perils.

Anticipatory ethics and RRI

Anticipatory governance refers to a movement to identify the broad social implications of emerging technologies while they are still in the early stages of development, when they can be steered away from potential negative social consequences and towards more socially beneficial designs and uses (Guston 2014). The idea is to avoid the development of technologies that are later found to be unacceptable to the public or to have negative social effects. Examples of older technologies that might have been improved by anticipatory thinking are genetically modified food and industrial pesticides. Anticipatory ethics is an offshoot of anticipatory governance, focusing on the distinctively ethical implications of emerging technologies. Although anticipatory ethics has received much less attention, several scholars have provided clarifying definitions. According to Johnson (2011,64), anticipatory ethics has two parts: “(1) engagement with the ethical implications of a technology' while the technology is still in the earliest stages of development; and (2) engagement that is targeted to influence the development of the technology”. In harmony with this definition but with a somewhat different emphasis, Brey (2012) labels the approach as anticipatory technology ethics (ATE), and defines it as “the study of ethical issues at the R&D and introduction stage of technology development through anticipation of possible future devices, applications, and social consequences”.

RRI is another endeavor overlapping with anticipatory governance and ethics that puts the challenge and burden of anticipatory analysis on the researchers and developers who are involved in an emerging technology’s development. RRI calls for those who develop new knowledge and new technology to incorporate consideration of social and ethical implications directly into the development process rather than leaving the task to others in separate or later stage activities (von Schomberg 2013).

In this chapter, critical examination of the discourse around IJ and especially the promises and perils of this emerging technology' serves as a strategy for anticipating social and ethical implications of IJ and putting this into the discourse that will influence IJ’s development.

IJ as an emerging technology with promises and perils

Emerging technologies are those that are believed to be currently in a nascent form of what they will come to be in the future. During the early stages of development, the design, uses, and meaning of new technologies are in flux. Science and technology' studies scholars describe this early stage as a state of “interpretive flexibility” (Pinch & Bijker 1987; Orlikowski 1992). During this stage many actors with different interests negotiate, pushing and pulling in different directions about the meaning of what is being developed as well as about designs and uses. Inventors, engineers, and manufacturers work on improvements to the artifacts; those with financial interests make bets and facilitate and constrain certain directions of development; political actors encourage development with funding or express concerns, or threaten regulation; the media inform (and may misinform) the public, shaping attitudes towards what is in the making. The negotiations around new technologies are contingent and multifaceted (Pinch & Bijker 1987). In the case of IJ the actors that are currently negotiating about the design, use, and meaning include, at least, equipment manufacturers, individual entrepreneurial producers (storytellers), potential users such as media companies, journalists and media who tell stories about IJ, academic researchers, and the public.

To say that IJ is an emerging technology is to say both that its current form is nascent and to say that it is a technolog)' (and not just a form of journalism). Framing IJ as a technology acknowledges that artifacts (various types of equipment) are part of IJ but it does not mean that IJ is just equipment. Although it is commonplace to slip into thinking about technology as simply material objects (artifacts), all technologies are ensembles of artifacts, social relationships, social arrangements, and systems of knowledge. Development, adoption, and use of new technologies require engineering new artifacts as well as constituting (or at least reconfiguring) new social relationships, institutional arrangements, social practices, new types of knowledge, and values.

So it is with IJ. Successful development - production, distribution, and use - of immersive stories may involve expensive new equipment as well as new production processes, new forms of financing, new kinds of skills, new organizational arrangements, and new categories of audience. All of these dimensions of IJ are currently in flux and being negotiated. This is reflected in the accumulating body of literature on IJ. Ideas about what it is and its significance for journalism, now and in the future, are being discussed and debated (see the References section of this chapter). Generally, the social negotiations around emerging technologies involve questions about what the new thing is and whether and how it fits into established categories or whether it is unique or even revolutionary. These questions are being raised about IJ. Is it the next step in a long evolution of visual technologies from film to television to video? (Owen 2016). Is it a form of documentary journalism or installation art? (Rose 2018). Is it a form of propaganda? (Kool 2016). Some have even raised the question as to whether there is anything significantly new here (Kool 2016). Recognizing that IJ is an emerging technology allows us to accept that these questions don’t have answers yet; the answers are being negotiated. The questions represent the state of interpretative flexibility in which answers are still in the making. Since IJ is not yet a stabilized “thing”, the questions are themselves part of the negotiation about what IJ will become.

As already indicated, much of the discourse on IJ features promises or perils, and this is not surprising since emerging technologies and promises and perils are all futuristic. Promises are declarations that something will happen or be done in the future. Likewise, perils are harms or losses that may happen in the future. Since IJ has not reached a stabilized or mature form, all we can do is anticipate its potential (and potentially disruptive) consequences.

A central feature of emerging technologies is uncertainty about what they will become. It is possible (though this is not a prediction) that IJ will not take hold in journalism even while other uses of VR become highly successful.The point is that whether or not IJ in one form or another takes hold in journalism depends on the discourse that is taking place now.

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