Three challenges for empathy in journalism

It is established that a good story and purposeful filming techniques can be used to evoke empathy or enhance an emotional response, but there are three initial concerns for using empathy as a guiding principle for immersive journalism; the first is whether empathy can create long-lasting change, the second is focused around impartiality, and the third is the limitation this has on the development of content.

The discussions around whetherVR can create long-lasting change have become more widely discussed in the past few years (Lisetti et al. 2013, Herrera et al. 2018). At Stanford’s Human Interaction Lab, “Becoming homeless” gives participants the perspective of being homeless, showing what it would be like to lose their job or their home. This research was developed to understand whether experiences could drive human behavioral change. Two studies took place over a two-month period with more than 560 participants between the ages of 15 and 88, representing eight different ethnicities. One group undertook the experience through virtual reality, the other being shown traditional materials. Researchers found that people who experienced the perspectives inVR developed longer-lasting compassion than those who saw it via other platforms.They were also more likely to sign a petition to support plans for affordable housing. Broken down, 82 percent of participants experiencing being homeless throughVR signed the petition, versus 67 percent of the people who read a narrative that asked them to imagine becoming homeless. A lot of criticism forVR as an empathy machine is focused around the idea that you can feel an immediate emotional reaction but that it soon fades; however, in this study, the results were found to be longer-lasting. After four weeks, participants were asked about supporting affordable housing initiatives. Those having had a VR experience still supported the idea, whereas the effect had diminished for those who had experienced it through other means.

A similar impact was demonstrated in a different study (Aitamurto et al. 2018), exploring gender equality in the workplace, which used a technique to split the 360-degree image so that each 180-degree angle would represent a different gender. This study showed an increase in the viewers’ feeling of personal responsibility for advancing gender equality in the workplace when they identified themselves with the female perspective.

It was something that Watson found in a study on We Wait (2016), a VR experience where you travel across the sea with a Syrian family.This is based on interviews with migrants but was made as an animation. Research analyzed the impact and effect that characters had on the participants and this was assessed based on their sense of presence in the experience (Steed et al. 2018). Further analysis focused on whether participants were sufficiently “moved” to follow up on the story and to seek more information. It was a small study of 32 participants, but the research showed a strong enabler to feeling presence was attributed to whether a character looked directly at you. Twenty-five percent of the participants followed up the experience with a visit to the website, which although seems a low proportion, it was quoted as being significant as only a small number are generally expected to follow up after watching a programme on television. In conclusion to the study, “fostering the sense in the participant that they were ‘there’ and what was happening was ‘real’ might be helpful in engendering follow-up and further interest in the news story”. (Steed et al. 2018, np). As Watson reflects;

It was the power of a direct connection with somebody who was explaining their story. However again, it was a beautifully scripted story albeit based entirely on news accounts and interviews and with Matthew Price, a BBC reporter, overseeing the story to make sure it really felt right.

Watson 2020

The second criticism relates to impartiality in news, something that Watson has been concerned with when the focus has been on empathy. A story that is focused on generating empathy will be developed to help the audience understand and share feelings in a particular situation. The question is whether this can also be defined as one that is impartial, where both sides of the story need to be presented, to provide information for the audience to make up their own mind;

News [in VR] is used as far more than empathy and there are plenty of stories that we report and need to report where I don’t want to have empathy with the person who’s being discussed. It seemed to me to come from a particular view of news, that was kind of a documentary festival view of news, which is “we use these stories to highlight issues about the world”, and of course we do that in news but also we have to report about court trials for child murderers. I mean do you want to feel empathy for a murderer? Not particularly but it still is news. It is far more than just feeling empathy.

Watson 2020

The changing nature of journalism is often associated with stories of this type, often defined as “advocacy journalism”, where objectivity and impartiality are seen as outdated terminology for a media form. In writing for the Independent Media Center in 2004, Berman stated,“If we are ever to create meaningful change, advocacy journalism will be the single most crucial element to enable the necessary organizing” (Berman 2004, in Salas 2018,34).The approach of advocacy journalism is familiar with supporters using empathy within immersive journalism to call for change, as seen in the early work of RYOT. Established in 2012 with the goal to be “the first news site linking news to action” (Zanger 2017), the firstVR/360 projects captured active war zones in Syria and disaster zones in Nepal, often partnering with mainstream organizations such as The New York Times, Huffmgton Post and The Associated Press. There is a focus on stories that can help raise funds to transform communities and lives. When RYOT released a 360-experience documenting the after-effects of the earthquake in Nepal, the plan was to take users to witness the devastation and to drive donations. Co-founder Bryan Mooser said the technology “is the ultimate fundraising tool” (Streep 2016). This leaves the debate open for what the purpose of journalism is. As a tool for empathy, conditions can be met to achieve longer lasting behavioral change, but this can change the nature and purpose of journalism, where impartiality is no longer a pre-requisite.

Thus, follows the final criticism, that focusing on empathy limits the content production of immersive journalism. The concern was that in the early days ofVR (in this wave, post 2010), the over-emphasis on empathy may have limited the range of content explored (Watson 2017, 21). In an early study of content in immersive journalism ([ones and Dawkins 2018), the majority of stories covered were those deemed to be empathy-generating, for example, imagining walking in someone else’s shoes in a refugee camp or through a city flattened by bombing, as someone who has been displaced. Developing this further in interview, Watson noted how focusing on empathy limits content production and consequently it can limit the audience;

It may have prevented audiences developing for early newsVR because every story was so miserable and actually one of the things that you want fromVR is sometimes a joyful and pleasant experience. Because so many news stories were about bombings and refugees, it was all very bleak content. Particularly if you look at content strategies geared towards bringing in younger audiences to news... just bringing misery is not going to work. So I think it led to a distortion, in terms of the sorts of content that might have helped build future audiences, where you want some of it but it needed to be balanced out with some other things that gave slightly more enjoyable experiences as well as being interesting and how people learn about the world.

Watson 2020

With the rise in content production of immersive journalism in news organizations, limiting stories to empathy wasn’t possible as more content was needed. The NYTimes The Daily 360 series produced a range of stories to experiment with understanding what worked for its audience. Watson used the example of Fukusliima, 6 Years On: Empty and Eerie (2017) as an example where the place was the focus of the experience and it demonstrated a commitment to tackling difficult subjects, without the driving factor being empathy.

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