Bearing witness has been one of the essential boons for journalists when it comes to delivering stories few have access to: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it,” is one such adage that comes to mind.
But with the rise of cameras that can record a scene in 360-degrees, stereoscopic video (which creates depth) and a new generation of headsets accessible to consumers, the ascent of VR as a new storytelling staple is clear. Coupled with collaborative partnerships across the technological and media landscape, the chance for VR to enable the “presence” of a user — in other words, to make her feel as if she is actually reacting to the environment she is immersed in — is now unprecedented. With this, “bearing witness” is taking on a different meaning.
The bottom line? The chance for VR to encourage empathy can potentially transform journalism and viewers’ understanding of the world. Plus, it might also create the type of immersive advertising and sponsored content that no ad-blocker could deny.
New York Times as Pioneer
The world took notice when the New York Times recently gave away 1.31 million Google Cardboard headsets to its print subscribers, solely to bring them into the VR experience. The simplicity and crudeness of the cardboard is its genius, Wired’s Marcus Wohlsen argued. “It’s cheap enough to be handed out for free; we smartphone users supply the only part that’s expensive,” Wohlsen wrote.
This sort of accessibility is key to the potential for VR to actually reach mass audiences instead of a tiny subset of early adopters. Producing VR work is already an expensive endeavor. While outfits like the New York Times Magazine, Frontline and Vice News — with their stories on the refugee crisis, the Ebola outbreak and last year’s Millions March against police brutality, respectively — have made major dives into VR storytelling, they are part of “the 1 percent” of news organizations that can afford to do so. Headsets like the one from Oculus Rift and other apparatuses for viewing VR are expected to become cheaper and therefore more mainstream, but it’s a far cry from the ubiquity of simply the smartphone. (Although YouTube, for one, has said it wants to bring VR to anyone with a smartphone.)
That’s why the Times’ home delivery of Cardboard units to use with a smartphone was a win in more ways than one. First of all, it delivered the headsets with its newspaper, acknowledging that traditional distribution system — and subscription — as a precursor for this modern news consumption. The Times is also planning to extend its virtual reality endeavors into sponsored content, as Sebastian Tomich, the Times’ senior vice president of advertising and innovation, told Contently. “Any format the newsroom is pursuing, you can assume that we’ll pursue it on the brand side as well,” he said.
Enticing for Brands
It’s not a surprise, then, that other brands and publishers are considering VR’s potential. Writing for TheMediaBriefing, Chris Sutcliffe notes that a VR environment can be enticing to brands and other publishers, as brands are already relying more on “experiential events” to help communicate their brand messages. The “rawness” that VR environments offer and the audiences they attract could potentially provide a new revenue stream, he writes. Designer Rebecca Minkoff, for example, is selling her own cardboard VR viewer for $30 for viewers to see how she filmed her runway show.
All this is not to say VR doesn’t have its hurdles. The recent Tow Center report on virtual reality acknowledged producing such work involves a series of trade-offs, especially around production time, quality and the capacity to reach wide audiences. Tom Kent, the standards editor at the Associated Press (which is also stepping into VR) also wrote a strong statement on Medium of some of the ethical questions that could impact VR journalism in the future, which New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan also discussed.
The Times’ release of its VR documentary “The Displaced” coincided with a range of critiques, from the difficulty of using the Cardboard unit to questions of the authenticity of the story. Michael Oreskes, NPR’s news chief and a former Times editor, cautioned, “Our stories can’t be virtually true. They must be fully real.”
As we ponder how VR fact-checkers would operate, we can also consider the vast potential of what immersive journalism—and advertising—could do to create a whole new dimension in audience engagement.