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Can VR reignite journalism in the digital age?

The Oculus Rift is one of the first mass-produced virtual reality headsets released.
Supplied publicity photo

Traditional journalism has taken a beating with the arrival of social media and the proliferation of online news outlets — but there’s new hope that virtual reality (VR) can provide an opportunity for public service reporting to reconnect with lost audiences.

One of the biggest advocates of VR reporting is Toronto-based journalist Saleem Khan. His writing has been featured in The New York Times, Fast Company and The Globe and Mail, and recently he’s been appointed as an advisor to Journalism 360, an immersive news initiative lead by the Google News Lab, Online News Association and non-profit, pro-journalism Knight Foundation.

Popjournalism sat down with Khan recently for a wide-ranging discussion, to explore the potential benefits and pitfalls of using VR as a reporting tool.

Saleem Khan is an expert on VR reporting
Saleem Khan is an expert on VR reporting Robert Ballantyne/Popjournalism

Journalism has long been said to be in decline. What are some of the ways that VR can restore or extend traditional journalism’s reach?
Saleem KhanIt’s early days but, as we can already see in some initial reporting projects, VR can help people understand stories and events in multi-dimensional ways that haven’t been possible before. For example, Frontline‘s 360° documentary on Yemen’s famine crisis immerses you in an airborne food drop, and you can actually see sacks of food crashing around you. It’s a view of what life is really like there in a visual way that you can’t really describe, but must experience yourself. All of our previous advances in electronic media were about getting us closer to true experience, but they didn’t quite reach it. True VR closes that gap.

A scene from the 'Frontline' VR documentary, 'On the Brink of Famine'
A scene from the ‘Frontline’ VR documentary, ‘On the Brink of Famine’ Screen capture

If you can immerse people in foreign experiences, like famine and war zones, what kind of ethics come into play for VR journalists?
Not everything is appropriate for VR — you don’t want to just drop someone into a war zone. I’ve put a proposal to Journalism 360 to come up with a set of VR ethics. Just like journalists currently use judgment to not show pictures of some traumatic events, with VR, we must be especially careful not to immerse people in traumatic experiences. Journalists are not psychologists or neurologists and if VR can fundamentally alter perception, we need to further explore the risks of full immersion before we start producing that kind of content.

Is there a risk that audiences could become further disconnected like we are now, blunted to a litany of journalists creating VR news “experiences”?
I’m not a fan of the word “audiences” because it implies passivity. As we can see online, the creation of virtual communities and their engagement are all hints at what’s possible with VR participation. Your question, too, echoes the kind of moral panic of the past when discussing any new technology like moving pictures or television or video games — fears that people will stop engaging with the real world. There may be some who disconnect and live within VR, but like other mediums, they’ll be in the minority.

So, moving beyond increased engagement, can VR inspire actual change? As you know, journalists tell stories — and some even risk their lives — to influence mass action and change.
Yes, we’ve found that. For example, the United Nations created a VR Syrian refugee camp experience and equipped their donation teams with VR headsets. They saw donations increase with the produced VR experience. We know that people don’t donate because of the lack of information or awareness — it’s about the lack of connection. If you look at the UN example, donors made a fundamental connection to the refugee camps in VR, without having to travel there themselves. That’s the power and potential of VR.

With technology moving so fast, what’s the risk of “fake VR news” eroding trust in journalism in the future? There’s already an ability for organized groups to mimic news presentation to further their own agendas on social media and search engines. What would stop people with malicious intent from doing this in the VR space?
Well, we are going to see this in flat media before we see it in VR. “Faked experiences” — the ability to create a live video stream that looks authentic — will be easy to create in short order. Within the next few years, it’s not impossible to imagine this as a possibility in VR as well. I’m proposing using a form of cryptographic authentication. First, you must verify your location source, which has to be encoded in whatever media feed you’re producing. But it will always be an arms race between fakers and cryptographers — especially with the onset of quantum computing — but that’s the best solution I think we have currently.

Finally, what is the uptake of VR technology within the journalism community?
Big media like The New York Times, The Guardian and the like are recognizing that the technology needs to be explored at a minimum. Unlike earlier attempts at popularizing VR technology, it’s now an actual industry, and not just a weird R&D experiment. Depending on who you ask, future VR technology adoption ranges from an industry of five billion or hundreds of billions of dollars. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 2018 will be the year that VR reaches mass awareness. Uptake will be like smartphone adoption by 2019-2020 and will progress from there. The 2018 Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One will be a major element of VR’s adoption. That will give the masses their first real exposure to the vision of what VR can be and will spur a lot of interest and make VR products hot items on Christmas wish lists. Apple, I predict, will also step into immersive tech with their iPhone rollout by 2018.

Content Creator
Robert J. Ballantyne is the editor-in-chief at Popjournalism. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star

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