Virtual reality is fast becoming the next big leap for journalism. Virtual reality takes news reporting and storytelling to an absolutely new height and a totally new experience. It has opened the frontiers of reportage and narrative to endless possibilities and viewers can get totally immersed in what is happening on the distant side of the globe – they can be where the action is and feel and experience what is being covered in journalistic accounts. Immersive story telling platforms and the adoption of virtual reality will be the voice of journalists in the not-too-far future.

Putting people in the middle of the story

Nonny de la Peña known as the “Godmother of Virtual Reality” says that as a journalist she has always been compelled to try to make stories that can make a difference and maybe inspire people to care. Her work in print and broadcast were interesting but it was only when she got involved with virtual reality that she realized the potential it had, of putting people on scene in the middle of the story and getting intense, authentic reactions from viewers.

When she first floated the idea of virtual reality in journalism, she was not taken seriously and had no funding to start her experiment. But she persevered and was successful in putting her efforts on the map. In collaboration with the USC School of Cinematic Arts she initiated Project Syria at the World Economic Forum – which is a mind-body experience that places viewers at the scene of a bombing, then allows them to explore a refugee camp. The sound of the bomb and the sight of the injured evoked the same kind of fear as real bombings. As some viewers reported it felt “A real feeling as if you were in the middle of something that you normally see on the TV news.” It is evocative and engaging for anybody exposed to it.

Make people better global citizens

De la Peña believes that “the goal of journalism is to keep an informed global citizenry” and she wants her stories to be “evocative and evoke change and give people deeper understanding and make people better global citizens.” Tom Kent, journalism professor at Columbia University firmly says “Virtual reality journalism is with us to stay, and will become even more realistic and immersive as technology improves. Already, virtual reality headsets and vivid soundtracks can put a viewer into stunning, 360-degree scenes of a bombed-out town in Syria or a dark street in Sanford, Florida.”

This new form of journalism needs to follow best journalistic practices and make sure that these powerful stories are built with integrity. If data collection is done by others, then the journalist has to be absolutely certain about the authenticity and provenance of the information. They need to follow and be guided by the basic tenets of journalism. The only difference is that with virtual reality there is a vivid sense of being on the scene in person and actually experiencing all the emotions that the story evokes.

Virtual reality news reporting involves large teams, cross-organizational partnerships, and high costs but it provides valuable information with immense empathy and emotional impact. And as technology improves, it will become even more realistic and powerful.