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Journalism Innovation

Bridging the empathy gap with VR

It offers an innovative avenue for improving public discourse.

Earlier this year, I moved back home to Canada from the U.S., where I worked as a journalist and covered the contentious 2016 presidential election. Given the online and offline political polarization I’d witnessed — and how an increasingly fragmented media contributed to this divide — I was determined to find solutions.

Then, virtual reality (VR) — often used as the umbrella term for 360 video, computer-generated VR, augmented reality and mixed reality — captured my imagination. Experts have been calling it an “empathy machine” for several years now. That’s why, even though new technologies come and go all the time, VR resonated so strongly with me: I believe it offers an innovative avenue for improving public discourse. How? By helping bridge the empathy gap that exists in America and is encroaching on the rest of the world, Canada included.

After Nov. 8, many Americans realized they were shouting into an online echo chamber that reinforced their own views, but seldom exposed them to others. And amid the rise of fringe news sites, it seems like this divide will only persist.

“Immersive media may succeed where more traditional forms of storytelling have faltered.”

But if one of journalism’s goals is to encourage productive public debate, then immersive media may succeed where more traditional forms of storytelling have faltered. Although there hasn’t been enough research to conclude that VR can permanently transform views or behaviours, some studies suggest that it can help people look at a situation from a different perspective and act accordingly. For example, in one study, participants who experienced a virtual simulation of schizophrenia and read about the disorder had more empathy than those who did the reading but didn’t use the simulator.

Experiencing something first-hand through an immersive video will likely resonate more than reading a personal account of the same situation. In journalism, it’s a powerful way to get someone to connect with an unfamiliar story and consider other perspectives.

One notable example is The New York Times’ “The Displaced,” a 360 video that follows the experiences of three children uprooted by conflict. The author of a new paper, titled “Can Immersive Journalism Enhance Empathy?” (subscription required), suggests that “The Displaced” gives viewers “a deeper view of the children’s personality and emotions” and therefore encourages feelings of empathy towards them.

The rise of immersive journalism feels inevitable, given the recent convergence of media and tech, the declining public trust in media, as well as the growing popularity of personal journalism, which is presented from one person’s perspective — someone for viewers and readers to identify with.

First, VR is an intimate medium for advanced multimedia. It can combine text, video, audio, graphics and animation into one viewing experience, and requires a device (e.g. VR headset/glasses/viewer, mobile phone, computer) for users to consume content. Companies are also continuing to look for ways to lower the cost of VR tech, which is currently hindering mass adoption. Cheaper VR viewing devices are already on the market, from companies like Google and Homido, while Facebook and Microsoft also recently announced new headsets. Second, immersive journalism puts people at the scene, so they can see the story for themselves first-hand. Unlike traditional 2D videos where journalists dictate the narrative flow, viewers have more control because they can choose where to look and move. Third, immersive journalism — like personal journalism — closes the distance between journalist and consumer by enabling the latter to see through the former’s eyes, rather than taking a “voice-of-god” tone. 

“VR technology supports the way we approach reporting at Discourse.”

The most exciting aspect of immersive journalism is that there are no established rules yet. For the first time ever, journalists have to think like UX designers when shooting VR videos since users are the ones in the driver’s seat. The format also sparks ethical debates, including whether or not it's okay to photoshop a tripod or cameraperson out of a 360 video, or whether or not sensitive topics, like sexual assault, should be avoided since the technology can engender such extreme empathy and could trigger some viewers. There are also health concerns, such as motion sickness, associated with using the technology.

As with all new tech, VR has room to grow, and journalists must use it responsibly. Robert Hernandez, an immersive journalism leader and professor at USC Annenberg, says the biggest threat to VR is gimmicky content. That’s why journalists should be proactive in producing high-quality immersive content before VR gets “hijacked,” he told me.

When harnessed effectively, though, VR technology supports the way we approach reporting at Discourse. It can enable us to experiment with a new journalistic format, help us rebuild trust in media among readers during a time when trust is particularly low and set the table for conversation among people who might not typically see eye to eye. With VR still an underdeveloped medium in journalism, we’re excited to explore its potential in our work soon.