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When VR News is Dangerous

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When MTBS got the headline "How virtual reality can bring news to life", we immediately thought this was going to be a creative use of a 3D 360 degree camera rig for VR news broadcasting. This is not the case. Instead, journalist and film-maker Nonny de la Pena has been using virtual reality recreations to help tell her news stories. As described in her BBC segment, she interviews people on the scene and recreates what happened in a virtual environment. In her opinion, VR becomes a great tool to give the viewers a stronger sense of presence, empathy and a deeper understanding of events.

Unfortunately, this is where things fall apart. It's a VR recreation; not actual camera footage. If people have emotional reactions to VR recreations, and the viewing public is led to believe that it's a 1:1 accurate account of what happened, how could anyone effectively differentiate news from deliberate propaganda? Imagine news and imagery being made from word of mouth alone - or worse, imagery and emotion that is orchestrated from imagination rather than being pasted together by source material that has to be scrutinized? What if so called VR news isn't sourced from journalists at all?

An article, radio piece, or traditional broadcast leaves much to the imagination - and that's actually a good thing. We need those gaps because it leaves room to fill things in with other parts of the story from multiple sources. There is room for debate, discussion and personal decision making. However, if we begin to accept VR recreations as factual accounts of what happened, and if we have evidence that these recreations are going to have an involuntary emotional response, then the whole concept of journalistic integrity and what it means to hold up to scrutiny are going to get thrown out the window.

Now if this was a documentary movie or Ron Howard film, then that would be fine. Everyone going in to the theater knows they are there to be emotionally attached to the story and perspective - but that's Hollywood! The audience knows that after they leave the theater, and they look up Apollo 13 on Wikipedia, they are going to find a hundred inaccuracies compared to real life. They accept it because they went to see that film to be entertained. The responsibilities are very different in the case of VR news broadcast recreations, and there is an added risk that experiences will be engineered to maximize emotional response rather than level headed news reporting.

While the positive intentions are there and it's important to experiment with new forms of media, if VR recreations were to get traction, this could mark a very dangerous path for broadcast news and public scrutiny.  This is of course just our opinion...what's yours?