When new technologies enter the marketplace, they often change the world of journalism with profound effects. And now, virtual reality is set to change the way people experience the news.
In a new video from Samsung and VICELAND (below), journalists discuss the prospect of using virtual reality, now accessible to almost anyone with a smartphone and a headset, to allow readers to immerse themselves in and explore a news story.
"We're not framing the story for you," says Jenna Pirog, New York Times Magazine's VR editor. "We're letting you look around at the whole thing."
"When you have a headset on and you turn your head and you feel like you're seeing everything," explains Claire Wardle, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, as she cups her hands over her eyes and points her head in different directions. It raises a fascinating question, she says: "Is trust greater for virtual reality?"
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"There's no guide," says Sam Dolnick, senior editor at the New York Times. "There's no mediator telling you what to look at ... It's a new visual language."
In November 2015, the New York Times published its first VR news feature, called "Fight for Fallujah." In one of its opening scenes, the Shiite militia fires mortars at ISIS. "In VR," says Pirog, "you turn around, and you see the press corps, and you see Ben [Solomon, the videographer], and you see his fixer, and you see the other members of the Iraqi press standing with him.
"All of a sudden, you have a different sense for how war actually looks like, how war actually operates."
Journalist Nonny de la Peña told Wired that VR creates an opportunity to connect with the subjects of a story, evoking empathy in ways that weren’t possible before. Speaking about screening her piece, "Hunger in L.A.," at the Sundance Film Festival, she said "people were just bawling. They were crying. I can tell you that it was the most emotional I’d ever seen people be in any of the pieces I’d worked on."
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De la Peña says that's what makes VR so powerful is the "sense of presence" it creates. Dolnick echoes that sentiment. "Virtual reality," he says, "allows the audience to go, and bear witness to themselves."
Journalists at the Smart News Agency, which independently reports on the conflict in Syria, hope VR can counter what founder Chamsy Sarkis calls "propaganda" put out by nations and parties with stakes in the conflict. He bemoans "a lack of critical news coming from Syria, and says that the goal of Smart News Agency is to "tell the stories as we are living them, as Syrians … So that people can see with their own eyes what's happening inside Syria."
For Smart News Agency journalist Asmaa Jaber, telling stories in VR is about more than just passively consuming a story. "It's very powerful," she says. "It moves people's hearts so maybe then, they want to do something."
Explore the "The White Helmets," a VR documentary about Syria’s volunteer first-responders, on Samsung VR here.
Photo credit: Fill/Visual Hunt