January 6, 2016

The sun is shining. Oleg, a Ukrainian boy of 11, smiles as he bikes down a street lined with trees and ruined houses. His companion rides slightly behind, gesturing into the distance and shouting.

This scene from “The Displaced” stands apart from the others. Much of the 11-minute film from The New York Times Magazine is harsh and unforgiving, telling the story of three children driven from their homes by war. It does so through virtual reality, immersing viewers in the swamps of South Sudan, the rural Ukrainian village of Nikishino, the cucumber fields of Lebanon. In a movie darkened by suffering, Oleg’s joyful race down the street shows the resilience of children in the face of terrible hardship.

But the scene also confronts readers with one of the primary ethical dilemmas of virtual reality: how to use obtrusive cameras to document the world without affecting it. In this case, The New York Times altered Oleg’s routine slightly by placing equipment on his bicycle before his trip down the street.

“Obviously, he doesn’t spontaneously ride down the street with a VR rig on his bicycle every afternoon,” Jake Silverstein, the editor of The New York Times Magazine, said of Oleg. “He had to wait to let us mount the VR rig on his bicycle, which was complicated and difficult and required a little trial and error. But once he did, he was riding his own bike down the street that he typically rides his bike down.”

When it debuted in November, “The Displaced” was hailed as a breakthrough for the use of virtual reality in journalism. In a bid to bring its movie to the masses, The New York Times developed a smartphone app and delivered more than 1 million sets of Google Cardboard to its home delivery subscribers. The app quickly caught on, attracting more users at launch than any other Times app has had upon release.

But the sudden popularity and accessibility of virtual reality also thrust into the mainstream questions surrounding the ethics of an as-yet undefined journalistic medium. Among them: Do the technical requirements of virtual reality conflict with the long-held journalistic standards preventing photojournalists from influencing the scenes they record? Does its visceral nature require new guidelines governing explicit and traumatic imagery? Do its immersive experiences interfere with efforts to craft balanced narratives? And in the case of virtual reality that uses computer graphics to piece together scenes, how much reconstruction is permissible?

These questions are still being resolved even as experimentation continues. Although the costs associated with virtual reality mean that these issues are still abstract for many news organizations, further innovation in the medium could force the journalism community writ large to grapple with them.

“It’s really early days in the medium, and you can see a path to how all of those barriers to adoption will fall away or become reduced,” said Fergus Pitt, a senior research fellow at Tow Center For Digital Journalism. “It’s hard to make good VR content, so if and when VR hits the mainstream, people aren’t going to suddenly turn around and make it expertly. Having this kind of period where it’s absolutely fringe and clunky and hard is a good period in which to practice your craft.”

Within days of the premiere of “The Displaced,” the movie attracted criticism from New York Times readers who wondered whether the magazine’s journalists had inappropriately influenced their subjects in the process of recording them. The critiques drew the attention of New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who summarized the complaints in a column. In it, she quoted NPR’s news chief Michael Oreskes, who cautioned his staff that the immersive upsides of virtual reality must not come at the expense of “literally true” journalism. Robert Kaiser, a former managing editor of The Washington Post, warned of “tricks and deceptions” that could compromise the Times’ reporting.

Many of these objections have to do with the 360-degree nature of virtual reality, which separates it from more traditional journalistic media. To avoid being recorded by the camera, journalists must set up their equipment before the action takes place, then leave the scene. That extra bit of choreography — which often requires coordination between journalist and subject — can make virtual reality less spontaneous than photography and videography.

In the case of “The Displaced,” that means subjects were sometimes instructed to wait before carrying out their actions or told to repeat their actions for the camera. But Silverstein notes that staffers were careful not to misrepresent the action with these alterations. They also threw out footage that didn’t meet this standard: One discarded scene showed a boy playing a game in a place he normally wouldn’t visit.

Despite this extra step, virtual reality is in some ways more spontaneous than photography or traditional videography, Silverstein said. The broader field of vision allows for incidental details to work their way into the shot, lending virtual reality a kind of happenstance not seen in media where the frame is more tightly controlled. And because there’s no need for an operator to be behind the camera constantly, journalists can capture natural action by setting up their equipment in an area and leaving.

Taken together, these differences make virtual reality more and less spontaneous, closer and farther apart from the straightforward style that journalists generally aspire to.

“If it’s done right, VR can actually allow for even more transparency than traditional documentary filmmaking in some instances,” Silverstein said. “Because you as a viewer are able to turn around 360 degrees and see the whole scene. And there’s no filmmaker saying, ‘hey, move over a little to the right.'”

The new ethical considerations of virtual reality don’t end when videographers pack up their cameras and head home for the day. Some of them arise in the editing room, when journalists are trying to decide how much of the footage they’ve gathered is fit for an audience to see. The biggest upside to virtual reality — its immersive nature — comes with heightened sensitivities about how much traumatic or explicit imagery filmmakers should expose viewers to. A movie could put the audience in the midst of a firefight, giving the horrors of war a kind of grisly intimacy. Or it could convey sexual images with more immediacy and impact. These considerations are not new to virtual reality, of course — journalists have grappled with them since the debut of photojournalism. But VR does make them more urgent.

“Because the medium is so strong and makes people have such a real and direct experience, the risk is obviously that if you are portraying a traumatizing subject or event, that you will have a stronger negative affect on the audience,” Pitt said. “This is a continuum that journalists are used to thinking about. We’re familiar with the ethical thinking around photography, and the need to be sensitive and know what is likely to cause trouble with your audience. But virtual reality turns the dial up on those effects and those problems and those conversations.”

Media watchers have also noted that virtual reality’s immersive nature might also be accompanied by a heightened power to shape audience opinion. There is compelling evidence for this assertion. Research conducted by Stanford University in 2011 showed that participants who cut down a tree in virtual reality were less likely to use paper products than subjects who only imagined a tree being cut down. Given journalism’s emphasis on fact-finding, some worry this could move virtual reality beyond reporting and into the realm of advocacy. Writing about the study on Medium, Advance Publications innovation group director David Cohn said that this power comes with big responsibilities.

Journalists don’t want to give their readers PTSD. Journalists don’t want to unfairly manipulate somebody’s low-level brain functions. If journalists do want to change real-world behavior, we have to think carefully about why and how.

Most of the ethical questions listed above deal with live video virtual reality, experiences created from footage gathered in the field. But some VR movies rely on computer graphics to represent reality, replacing cameras with artificial images similar to those experienced in a video game. Critics have said this method is more susceptible to distorting reality because reconstructed experiences do not match up perfectly with real life, said James Milward, who founded Secret Location, a content studio for emerging platforms.

“Other people have brought up that once you start recreating events, you don’t have the ability to journalistically vet that those events took place the way they did,” Milward said.

For all its differences, virtual reality shares many ethical considerations with televised and documentary journalism. Both strive to represent reality accurately and convey balance. Both attempt to handle traumatic and explicit images delicately. And both require journalists to use sometimes cumbersome equipment in sensitive situations.

“VR is at the immersive end of the spectrum, but on that same spectrum is photography and video,” Pitt said, “and we have been dealing with questions about how to handle potentially traumatic content in those media for decades.”

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of Poynter.org. He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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