Virtual reality’s future in journalism

Naomi Cornman
Naomi Cornman, a Stanford graduate student in communications,  adjusts a camera while working on a project in the course Immersive Journalism. Photo by Jamie Stark.

The use of virtual reality in media storytelling is getting a lot of attention – especially in Stanford’s journalism program.

Instructors GERI MIGIELICZ and JANINE ZACHARIA recently taught a course – Immersive Journalism – for 12 undergraduate and graduate students. During the 10-week class, they examined virtual reality (VR) stories and packages published by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and ABC News, among other media outlets.

The students, working in teams, also captured their own 360-degree video, using a two-lens camera and a six-camera array. They learned how to stitch their footage to create spherical video experiences. And they studied 3-D modeling and computer-generated avatars and learned about the pioneering work of others in the field.

When someone puts on a VR headset, the experience may make him believe he is somewhere that he is not. This illusion of being present in a different environment can seem highly persuasive when the virtual world responds to the participant’s eye or hand movements.

As a result, VR may prove to be a disruptive technology for journalism, but there is still much to learn. With that in mind, the Stanford class recently published a “dos” and “don’ts” guide for using VR in journalism. The big-picture issue, Migielicz and Zacharia wrote at the outset, was the fundamental question: “Why would you use virtual reality in your storytelling in the first place?”

The answer, the instructors and students concluded, is not what one might think. Think quality over quantity.

“We found that trying to apply traditional journalism video techniques to virtual reality is problematic both ethically and narratively, and the medium may require a brand new set of guidelines,” wrote Migielicz, the Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor of Professional Journalism, and Zacharia, the Carlos Kelly McClatchy Visiting Lecturer.

The reality is that most news stories are not appropriate for the technology. Right now, it is more of a complement to other forms of reporting than a platform that can replace them.

Journalists, they suggested, should only consider using VR in their storytelling for difficult-to-access places, when being in a place virtually significantly expands the story beyond the written narrative and where turning one’s head side-to-side is essential.

“If all the action is front and center – say at a political debate –you don’t need spherical video,” they wrote.

Ethical and objectivity considerations exist as well. Virtual reality is a potentially powerful empathy-generating tool, as research by Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has found. As a result, using VR in storytelling could increase audience empathy far beyond what a photo or regular video, let alone written narrative, could do.

“How do we as journalists reconcile this with objectivity and other traditional standards? Will it make viewers feel like there is an agenda?” they asked.

In the end, VR in journalism will likely succeed, Migielicz and Zacharia said. Investment in and development of the technology is accelerating.

“With the exciting content that has been produced so far,” they said, “the trajectory for quality content in the VR space already has a foundation. Once you experience a VR ‘ah-ha’ moment, you can’t wait to find the next one.”