Gone are the days when virtual reality was talked about as an innovation of the distant future. This is due in part to the fact that virtual reality gear is now more accessible than ever. Samsung Galaxy Owners can purchase the Samsung Gear VR for around $100, and Google Cardboard can be used with any smartphone for prices in the single digits. With easy access to such technology, the ways in which virtual reality is used are growing quickly.
Elasticity recently released an article about the greatest challenges the industry will face in 2016. In the report, USC journalism professor Robert Hernandez stressed the importance for journalists to become familiar with this innovation, as we are quickly approaching a time when virtual reality is a mainstream part of reporting. Hernandez says that the challenge journalists face with this new technology is deciding whether to jump in while it is still new and running the risk that it does not work smoothly, or waiting until it has become more mainstream and missing their stake as a pioneer in this new area of reporting.
The possibilities for virtual reality in reporting are many, and it will be exciting to see if any of those possibilities come to fruition. However, as Hernandez pointed out, journalists will have to be careful in their execution with this new technology because, if done poorly, virtual reality also has the possibility to flop in its application for media. In addition, journalists will have to make it clear to their audience why the technology is helpful for storytelling. As Forbes pointed out, this is one of the main reasons why Google Glass failed. Of course being immersed in the story you are reading is cool, but why is it necessary? Will it add to your understanding of the issues presented in the story? Is it worth my time to strap on a headset and watch a 15-minute, fully immersive video of a news story, when I can get the same basic information in five minutes by simply reading the article? These are all answers that reporters will have to give their readers when presenting their virtual reality stories.
However, the pitfalls of virtual reality journalism goes beyond educating audiences on the need for immersive storytelling and ensuring that the technology works. According Margaret Sullivan, public editor for the New York Times, managing editor for the Washington Post Robert Kaiser has expressed concerns about maintaining journalistic ethics in the production of these stories. In the article, it says that there is more coordination between the filmmaker and the subject in filming virtual reality.
“This, Mr. Kaiser said, is tantamount to faking a scene – and that’s not sound journalism” wrote Sullivan.
How does one film for a virtual reality video and capture the desired creative image while still maintaining journalistic integrity? This is another issue that must be taken into consideration as reporters take the plunge into producing this immersive content. However, if virtual reality is to become a mainstay for reporting, it is probable that producing content that is both well done and journalistically sound will be a process of trial and error, just as photography and video were as early innovations.
While there are many challenges to overcome in the process of bringing virtual reality to the mainstream, it is still something that many journalists are excited to delve into. Virtual reality has the ability to immerse audiences into a story in ways that written narratives, photos, and even normal videos cannot. Imagine stories such as the Pulitzer Prize winning story Snowfall by John Branch, told in a format for virtual reality. The feature is considered extremely innovative for the time it was published, due to its stunning graphics that move with the reader. In a virtual reality story, a 360 degree animation can be created to put the reader on the mountain to see what the skiers saw as the avalanche rushed towards them. The ability to be totally immersed in the stories we read is the ability to gain a more full understanding of events and the world around us. If journalists give virtual reality its due diligence in development and care, this technology could truly be a game-changer for the way we consume news.