It’s not just about empathy: Going beyond the empathy machine in immersive journalism

Sarah Jones

In November 2015, The New York Times released its Virtual Reality (VR) app and distributed cardboard headsets to its 1.2 million subscribers. The app contained an experience called The Displaced (dir.: Chris Milk 2015), which told the story of three children who had lost their homes due to war and conflict. The mobile app had more downloads in its first few days than any other New York Times app has had at launch; the average time spent within the app was 14.7 minutes; some 92 percent of videos were viewed; and concurrently the videos began trending on social networks ([aekel 2015). The success of the launch led Wired magazine to lead with the headline, “Google Cardboard’s New York Times Experiment Just Hooked a Generation on VR” (Wohlsen 2015). However, the biggest impact was in the consumer response that The Displaced was a transformative experience, something that Milk refers to as an “empathy machine” (Milk 2015). Among the responses online, readers of The New York Times said:

Before today, I never suspected VR would interest me, much less bring tears to my eyes. Incredible. #NYTVR @jennykutnow

Never have I been emotionally moved by a new technology. Until just now with my first taste of #NYTVR. Speechless. @google @nytimes @ AmiNahshon

“Whoaaa.bra! I think I need to sit down.” - 10-year-old kid’s mind blown by #NYTVR.“Why do we even have wars? We should not have wars.” @lizweil

Thanks @nytimes, it’s been awhile since I’ve sobbed into a cardboard box. #NYTVR @tophrrrr

The emphasis and repeated use of the words “sob”, “emotion”, and “tears” in the users’ descriptions of their experience gives weight to Milk’s argument that the technology is a machine that makes people more compassionate, more connected, and more empathetic.This chapter will seek to look beyond this and challenge the argument that VR is an empathy machine. It will argue the proposition that VR as an empathy machine has been a strategic move by the technology industry as a way to humanize the technology'. Instead, the technology can effectively be used to enhance emotions through the depiction of a place in a story. This in turn can evoke empathy, but it should not be the driving factor forVR in immersive journalism, as there are limitations that can change the nature of journalism.

Why are we here?

Discussions around media being able to generate empathy are not new. Film critic Roger Ebert, in a speech to accept a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, stated,

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie, I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

Ebert 2005, up.

The discourse around empathy has been resurrected in discussion around the purpose ofVR content, most prominently developed in the work of de la Pena et al. (2010) and Milk’s TED talk, “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine” (Milk 2015). In an analysis of the work of immersive journalism, Sanchez Laws (2017) identified de la Pena’s two key notions that give way to immersion and, as a result, empathy:

The first idea was that being placed in a situation that felt as real as the original news event would heighten engagement. The second idea was that adopting a first-person point of view would lead to a deeper emotional response.

Sanchez Laws 2017, 2

Empathy became the gateway for immersive journalism, a reason to bring a new and emerging technology into a new genre.

The drivers for the technology and the emergence of technology' companies within the news industry have been covered at length throughout this book. It is important to reiterate that the VR market has largely been dominated by the games industry. To generate the scale of growth and adoption that the technology' industry wanted, it needed to reach and secure new audiences. This could only be done by tapping into new markets. Adoption is still a concern, with a survey of developers in 2019 finding that 40 percent of them found this to be the biggest challenge (Fogel 2019). The aim then is to infiltrate a range of industries to ensure wider adoption. Since 2014, a number of industries such as retail, advertising, film, and travel have been experimenting with the technology'. Certainly education, healthcare, and training have been using the technology since the second wave in the 1990s.

There is also the realization that games are not enough and for the industry to thrive there needs to be a range of good content. The lessons have been learned from the early day's of the internet. Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants talks about the notion of “content is king” in discussions with Bill Gates as far back as 1996, where the internet would only succeed if there was good content: “If people are to be expected to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen, they must be rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will” (Wu 2016).

As a result, to generate content and to encourage adoption, technology companies have partnered with news organizations to reach mass audiences, and in particular audiences that weren’t traditionally associated with the games industry'. Samsung partnered with the NYTimes to produce The Daily 360 stories. The project lasted a y'ear and the experiences gained 94 million views on Facebook and 2 million views on YouTube (Willens 2017).This was not the first time the NYTimes had partnered with a technology company, as noted in the opening of this chapter and the launch of the cardboard headsets with Google.

Google has also supported a number of organizations to generate VR content: for example, funding to support Euronews to integrate 360-degree experiences into their production workflows (Google DNI).

Oculus has been running a Creators Lab with their VR for Good program, and HTC Vive has supported a similar program with VR for Impact. These programs have bought together creators, storytellers, and technologists to produce new content that reaches new and diverse audiences.

It can also be argued that the trend for these VR for Good campaigns has been used to humanize the technology. This is not in the traditional sense of the term, where artificial intelligence is “humanized” to personalize responses, but instead through an accessibility' lens. The idea of putting on a VR headset to enter a virtual world could be prohibitive to a wide audience not used to those spaces or technologies. Yet, disguised as a medium to explore a new journalistic narrative or a deeper understanding of a news story', it becomes humanized and is suddenly more accessible. It is this that has driven the use of immersive journalism, as noted at the start through The New York Times’ VR app and the 1.2 million subscribers holding a cardboard headset to step into another world.

With buy-in from technology companies and the emergence of immersive journalism in a VR form, why then should we stand against empathy as the driver for content?

It's not just about empathy 85

Zillah Watson has been at the heart of the emerging immersive journalism scene, leading the work for the BBC and developing research and development within this area. She authored one of the most extensive studies onVR in journalism for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s report VR for News: The New Reality? (Watson 2017) where the claim of empathy held little purchase with the creators who were interviewed. One area of concern highlighted in the report was raised by Jason Farkas,VP for Premium Content Video at CNN, where he stressed that, although empathy is an important component of some VR, it isn’t the only one.The concern was that in the early days of VR (in this wave), the over-emphasis on empathy may have limited the range of content explored (Watson 2017, 21), something that will be developed later in this chapter.

An in-depth interview with Watson that took place in 2020 has allowed for these topics to be explored further to understand why we should be going beyond the empathy machine when discussing immersive journalism, with the starting point trying to understand howVR came to be almost synonymous with empathy;

People got so excited by it that this was a unique way to put you in someone else’s shoes so you would understand things. People just liked that... It was about the simplicity. All ideas spread when they’re ultimately quite simple and it just had a simplicity and beauty to it. Everybody loved the idea that this was going to make us all better people and the world a better place... For some new technology that’s actually quite scary, strapping a box on your head, to then believe that it could have this unique superpower to help you deeply understand other people’s lives was an incredibly positive thing that I think really helped drive forward interest in it.

Watson 2020

With Ebert (2005) likening film to an empathy machine because you could understand things better, it is interesting to understand whether virtual reality is any different to established media forms, or whether the technology itself could drive us to a greater empathetic reaction. For Watson, any chance of empathy lies in the story; [1]

street and seeing a homeless person? Not always. We often walk past them. Putting on aVR headset isn’t any different from that and therefore I’ve always questioned it. Whereas a good story, told beautifully, certainly can do that.

Watson 2020

Clouds Over Sidra (2015), can be used to illustrate this point. It is a piece that is referred to as being one of the leading examples of immersive journalism that creates a sense of empathy, but as Watson identifies, the piece is crafted with a clear narrative and cinematic techniques. In Clouds Over Sidra, a 12-year-old girl invites you to experience her life in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. The experience allows you to view her school, her makeshift tent, and the football pitch in the camp. Watson refers to the cinematic techniques used, for example the music and a script to evoke “tears and empathy”. She suggests it is this combination that is used to evoke emotions. Although you feel as though you are invited into her world by her, through a combination of camera positioning and eye contact (Jones 2017), there is no option to interact with her or take a different journey through her life in the camp.

The limitations of empathy are reflected in the argument put forward by Chun, which proposes that even if you could recreate a perfect sensory match for another’s reality, you cannot truly know their experience. As she argues, “if you’re walking in someone else’s shoes, then you’ve stolen their shoes” (Chun 2016).The argument is that, when drawing on an empathetic response the other is replaced with the self, so it can only ever be your understanding of what that experience would be like. So, although it can be an invaluable medium to generate reflection and new perspectives, the argument that the experience is of the same value and has the same effect as the contextualized lived experience of the subject is reductive.

  • [1] see it is all on a continuum from early TV documentaries that showed youvery different people’s lives and news reports, through to actually being thereand seeing it for yourself. But I think ultimately, what was ignored aboutthat early understanding of empathy was just putting it on wasn’t enough.Whether it’s a novel or whether it’s a TV doc or if it’s VR, the strengthwill come from a really beautifully told story, which it will help invoke theempathy. I’ve never been that clear that just putting you in a situation to see it necessarily invokes empathy. I mean do we feel empathetic just walking down the
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