Representation and Positionality

The VR medium challenges core journalistic questions evolving from the fourth wall debate, such as “who is the journalist?” and “what does the journalist represent?”

There are extensive journalistic debates about both the positionality of journalists and their audience, as well as what is being represented in the field of view of a journalistic work. Live-motion, 360/3D virtual reality environments complicate both.

Who, for example, is the user in a virtual reality environment? The journalist, in creating the point of view of the user, is making decisions about who the journalist will be, and who the user is supposed to be. Are users invisible bystanders in the scene? Do they inhabit the journalist’s position and role? Is the journalist (and her or his team) in the field of view? Is the journalist the guide to the experience? All of these editorial decisions will have significant impact on the resulting experience. Additionally, is the experience intended to be real, or surreal? Is the editorial goal to replicate reality, or to allow the user to do something that is not humanly possible (to fly, to look down on a conversation from above, to control the pace and evolution of a story)?

For this project, our team provided two perspectives. When users are situated in a live-motion, VR environment, they see the experience from a human, first-person perspective. They are in a place as a scene unfolds around them. For the transitions in between the three live-motion scenes, however, we used a surreal CGI perspective that allows users to watch the spread of disease over a map, which gave viewers a sense of the scale and pace of Ebola’s spread.

An additional editorial and production decision concerns how the construct of a scene is represented to a user. There is a conflict in the logic of virtual reality, namely that the experience is a highly mediated one. Everything in the scene is almost, by necessity, highly prescribed. At the same time, a principle selling point of the technology is that users feel like they are present in a real environment. The very real sense of immersion and users’ ability to control elements of the experience risk masking the editorial construct of journalism’s work. The users are not really there, and what they are seeing and experiencing (as in all works of journalism) is highly prescribed.

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