Virtual Reality: Adopting Storytelling Strategies

The use of technology in reporting to create more impactful news has just taken a quantum leap. Newspaper media have begun experimenting with and are now integrating into their editorial strategies what is arguably one of the biggest technological advances in interactive storytelling to date: Virtual reality.


The 360-degree video views provided by VR have the power to engage audiences in news stories like never before. Newspapers that are honing this technology include The Des Moines Register’s coverage of the challenges faced by Iowa farming families in “Harvest of Change” and New York Times Magazine’s powerful film, “The Displaced” calling attention to the issue of nearly 30 million children that have been uprooted from their homes through war and persecution.

Newspapers’ entrance into the virtual reality space has been gradual, as the technology currently requires a significant investment in time and resources to be successful and it is not yet mainstream at the consumer level. But there are indications that this could be about to change. The popularity of VR headsets became apparent during a recent launch of Oculus Rift VR headsets that crashed the manufacturers’ website. Despite initial interest, it is still uncertain whether consumers will ultimately be willing to pay the hefty price tag (the Oculus Rift retails for $599) in order to have a premium experience.

While VR allows for a new and exciting form of storytelling, it is important not to forget our responsibility to report and deliver news in a manner that is consistent with the ethics and integrity of comprehensive journalism. Objectivity and maintaining the true reality of the story are paramount.

Thinking about venturing into virtual? Here are a couple of important considerations for preserving journalistic integrity:

1) Think proactively about how shots will be composed (and how they will be edited later) so as to not alter or distort the truth. As the audience will be more present in the physical space, conscious efforts should be made to avoid disruption and intrusion by the journalist into the story. “Our stories can’t be virtually true. They must be fully real,” NPR news chief and former New York Times editor Michael Oreske wrote in a staff note that both praised and addressed concerns for virtual reality.

2) Not all topics will be conducive to VR. Reporters should first determine whether a story will be an appropriate fit for the technology. If so, then they should decide how to tell the story while being cautious of how the visual components will be received, as the VR medium may intensify the audience’s reaction.

At its heart, great journalism – whether done through traditional means or through leveraging the latest technology – must be true to both its subjects and its audiences.


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