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Virtual Reality and journalistic ethics: where are the lines?




According to Graham Roberts, director of Immersive Platforms Storytelling at the New York Times, the goal of journalism produced using these new tools is the same as it has always been: to transport readers into the story. But as The Times and other publications experiment with virtual reality to transport viewers into less innocuous situations — say, to the middle of a war zone or a jail cell in solitary confinement — new ethical considerations arise, not only about how these stories are produced, but also about the ways in which audiences experience and remember them.

The concerns accompanied The Times’ famous roll-out two years ago of a virtual reality experience delivered directly to readers’ homes, complete with a cardboard viewer. While praise for the foray was widespread (the immersive video took readers inside the plight of refugee children), some journalists immediately raised pointed questions. The Times was experimenting with a process “that will often be based on tricks and deceptions by photographers/cameramen,” Robert Kaiser, the former managing editor of The Washington Post, complained to the paper’s public editor at the time.

In the two years since, many other publications have begun experimenting with virtual reality and immersive storytelling — and the debate over where to draw lines continues. Roberts likens the rise of virtual reality journalism to the period of time between the invention of movies and movie theaters: The technology is there, but we don’t yet know what the rules and conventions of the medium should be.


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