The use of virtual reality is becoming increasingly prominent each year. For some people, the new technology is seen as an interesting tool that is fun to experiment with. For others, the use of VR is a growing concern.

It's a popular tool. The latest data from Insider Intelligence found that 70.8 million people actively use VR in 2023. This number is expected to grow to 75.4 million by 2025. But when it comes to news consumption, media outlets seem divided. Some newsrooms are embracing it, while others are more skeptical.

The Use of VR in the Newsroom

Many newsrooms have already begun looking at ways VR can be used to help tell their stories. Some some media outlets like USA Today Network say they've already had success monetizing VR, while others like the Associated Press have expressed concerns that it isn't well-integrated enough into the average household and could reduce average news consumption.

Every day practices like creating video content using 360 footage can better immerse the audience into the story. The New York Times is one example of a news organization that began trying to adapt to this new technology early on. In 2016, they began posting the “The Daily 360.” Within 426 days, they made 435 videos and journalists from across the world could take turns featuring different 360 videos each day. These could be accessed from viewers' smartphones, tablets and computers, and allowed users to move their focal point in all directions as the videos played. This included up, down, left, right, and in the opposite direction.

Experimentation with VR for Journalism

Many experiments with VR for journalism have taken place since 2010. Jeremy Bailenson, a communication professor at Stanford University and founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says he believes bringing VR to the newsroom can create “an ideal multimedia experience.”

Working alongside NPR journalist, Barabara Allen, they were able to create a virtual reality depiction of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Users were surrounded by an experience of rising water, shaking rooftops, harsh rains, frantic people on their rooftops and in the water, and helicopters flying overhead. By placing consumers in an immersive experience, Bailenson said viewers were given a more complete picture of the terror felt by residents during the storm.

The Impact of VR on Journalism

Many journalists have similar intentions, believing that the use of virtual reality will captivate their audience and allow them to fully take in the experience they are painting with their news stories.

American journalist and documentary filmmaker Nonny de la Peña, began experimenting with VR in her journalistic work in almost a decade ago that she and her intern hoped would shine a spotlight on hunger in the United States. The two started by collecting photos, videos, and audio from different lineups at various food banks. VR may not have been able to make users feel physically hungry, but it was able to replicate an experience they witnessed of a man in line not being able to get food on time and collapsing due to a diabetes-induced coma.

De la Peña was unsure of how audiences would react to the experience, but in her 2015 Ted Talk she spoke of a pattern that emerged while promoting her project: People within the experience would often become emotional and get down on the ground in an attempt to help the fallen man.

“I had a lot of people come out of that experience saying ‘Oh my God, I was so frustrated. I couldn’t help the guy,” she explained in the video. The technology, she later said, offered people a “duality of presence” allowing them to feel more empathetic than they would have been if they felt physically removed from what was happening.

“It wasn’t until I began working with virtual reality that I began seeing these really intense, authentic reactions from people that really blew my mind,” she said. 

Documentaries Utilizing VR

The use of VR to tell stories quickly spread from traditional journalists to documentarians, who found utilizing VR could provoke a more present, emotional response from their audiences.

Zaria Howell, a sophomore journalism and gender studies student at Northwestern University, comprised a list of some of these recent VR experiences. The list includes information about several recent documentaries that use VR to insert viewers into their stories. Some examples included a story about the struggles of black travellers in America in the 20th century, human trafficking within the Thai fishing industry, and a story about a survivor of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

The Future of VR in Journalism

Experiments utilizing VR in journalism started strong in the 2010s. Whether journalists used VR to put their audiences into the current setting of a news story or used it to recreate a historical event, VR is a newer way of setting the scene of a news story for the viewer. This technology allows the viewer to relieve particular moments with a 360 viewpoint, making them feel like they're literally in the action. The exact location of a story can now be visited from a smart device, such as a phone or computer, or from within an even more immersive headset experience.

While some worry about whether VR news stories will be able to promote engagement from their audiences, others are more optimistic. VR has proven its ability to draw greater emotions, and the use of VR is still projected to grow. The exact use of VR in the journalism world is still uncertain but viewers may see much more of it in the years to come.

Written by Emily M.

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