September 20, 2016

In 2015, "Clouds Over Sidra," the first virtual reality (VR) video created for the United Nations, drew the public’s attention for both for its technological novelty and its adeptness at engaging users. With the help of a headset, viewers followed along as a young Syrian girl named Sidra took them on a tour of her Zaatari refugee camp, walking them through her daily life. According to UN project manager Kristin Gutekuns, the visual account helped individuals identify with refugees, a change from the prior disconnect she believes contributed to poor fundraising outcomes. Tearing down the the barrier between viewers and refugees, Sidra brought us into her home, her school and her play lot, making us feel as if we – not the producers – could gauge her circumstances. "Instead of just feeling bad for someone, you actually feel like you might be in the same situation with them," said Gutekuns. To the public, the short film was an indication that journalism had reached a new frontier in which it could provide high-tech experiences that merged two environments.

While the fascination with VR has not worn off, it is now time for us to move beyond marveling at its potential. Journalists and editors must work together to create guidelines for virtual reality, establishing ethical boundaries that VR should not cross. One of the most important questions we must ask ourselves is whether VR should be off-limits if it infringes upon the privacy of taped subjects.

Sidra allowed us into her home on her own accord, but virtual reality journalism is quickly progressing, and we may soon find ourselves intruding upon experiences we were not invited to share. When times of crises give producers the opportunity to enter the worlds of wounded victims and families, journalists should make the ethical decision to set their VR equipment aside.

Before you accuse me of underhandedly promoting censorship, let me explain. As of now, VR journalism is merely an addendum to articles, photographs and limited-scope video coverage. We can refuse to trespass on people’s grief while continuing to write about tragic events and publish (sensitively-selected) footage. However, optimizing the VR experience by offering users enhanced images of injured individuals or grieving families during natural disasters, shootings or other devastating events would not be a point of pride for journalists.

Creating regulations that preserve privacy is a particularly urgent matter because recent improvements in VR access have pushed news sites to quickly expand their video repertoire. Legal and ethical regulations have not kept up with video production advancements spurred on by a selection of new, affordable VR headsets. With free smartphone apps and a cardboard viewer that costs $5, you can access VR stories published by a variety of news sources. To dissuade competing journalists from invading personal spaces in an attempt to obtain the most appealing footage, ethical boundaries must be standardized as quickly as possible.

Woman Using a Samsung VR Headset at SXSW 
by Nan Palmero, CC BY 2.0

Debates over privacy infringement are not new to 360-degree footage. Google 360 was met with an outpour of criticism for violating personal space and endangering minors by publishing the public’s whereabouts. In response, Google changed the angles at which people were photographed to minimize facial recognition and obliged requests to blur out faces and license plates. Now, Google’s initial infringements seem slight compared to intrusions associated with VR journalism. A major draw of VR is its ability to grant us entry into someone’s environment and induce a rush of emotion as we gaze straight into strangers' eyes. If a child appears in the scene, an additional boost of empathy further enriches the experience. Offering this intimate experience is not inherently unethical, so long as journalists draw an appropriate line between approved documentation and invasion of space at graphic sites.

It may be tempting to cross the fine line between entertainment and documentation when news outlets seek captivating footage to win over viewers. Fortunately, most news sources have made ethically sound judgments about limiting VR productions of breaking news tragedies. (Admittedly, equipment setup and editing limitations play a role in these decisions.)

When disaster sites are filmed, the footage is typically captured in the aftermath of tragedy. Numerous short videos of war sites are available online, but injuries and subsequent despair are not a theme in taping and distribution. Virtual reality exploration of destroyed cities and images of struggling families cognizant of taping can illustrate distress without compromising the privacy of the deceased and their loved ones. When striving to obtain footage that enables viewers to witness scenes of devastation up-close, journalists must select platforms with sensitivity. Perhaps VR offers the best opportunity for immersion, but it is often the least ethical of options.

As numerous videos have shown, VR is at its best when it takes us into foreign territory, but its potential extends far beyond the portrayal of disaster. Some journalists who have utilized VR impressed audiences with short documentaries reminiscent of Discovery Channel productions. In the past year, the New York Times published fascinating VR films that included tours of national parks and a trip to the surface of Pluto. In fact, according to a list of VR do’s and don’ts published by Stanford University’s journalism program, “The vast majority of news stories are not suited for VR. ... VR pieces will complement other forms of reporting rather than replace them.” Journalists should therefore resist the urge to capture and release footage of sensitive material under the impression that it is the only way to offer prime VR experiences.

We do not have to leave the public in the dark about events involving tragedy and grief, but it is important to be selective about the means by which stories are told. Ideally, scenes of violence would not be shot without a subject’s permission, but that is not always a viable option. At the very least, journalists should abide by ethical privacy guides the law has yet to establish. In some cases, that means putting down the VR equipment.

Paulina Haselhorst 
was a writer and editor for AnswersMedia and the director of content for Scholarships.com. She received her MA in history from Loyola University Chicago and a BA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You can contact Paulina at PaulinaHaselhorst@gmail.com.