The Continuum of Visual Mediums
Virtual reality journalism can be seen as part of a continuum of visual mediums that have long influenced journalism, one that arguably shifts core concepts of representation and immersion. This continuum is best understood by looking at the evolution of how we learn about international events. From roughly the 1920s–1970s, the photograph was the dominant medium through which photojournalists disseminated images, aiming to educate the public about global events. While the photograph was initially hailed as a means to objectively convey information and provide a “true” account of events happening elsewhere, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others questioned the objectivity construct as it called attention to the ethical dilemma of consuming images of pain and suffering, as well as noted that there is always someone behind the camera deciding what to keep in its frame and what to exclude. Television reporting arguably overtook the dominance of the photograph in the mid-1970s, when TV began to displace more traditional forms of print media.5
In the 1990s, visual journalism evolved along two parallel, technological developments. Digital technology accelerated access to video, while computational technology enabled more interactive forms of media. Audiences began to witness news in a range of modes, including CD-ROMs, newsgames, websites, social and mobile platforms. This report does not discuss journalism within those particular mediums, because while these platforms support interactivity, they are vastly different from VR in that they are not necessarily immersive (a concept explained in more detail below).
As immersive journalism researchers Nonny de la Peña and others outline, there is a long history of attempts to place the journalism audience into the story.6 Beginning with early accounts of video-based, foreign reporting, through to experimentations placing journalism into gaming environments and interactive media worlds, reporters have explored ways of giving their audiences both agency and higher degrees of presence in a story. For the most part, these efforts can be categorized as interactive journalism. De la Pena, et al., describes the bounds of this form:
The user enters a digitally represented world through a traditional computer interface. There is an element of choice, where the user can select actions among a set of possibilities, investigating different topics and aspects of the underlying news story. This offers both a method of navigation through a narrative, occasionally bringing the user to documents, photographs, or audiovisual footage of the actual story, and it also offers an experience.7
While these approaches provide audience members with agency and some choice in how they experience a narrative, there are limitations around the ability to make news consumers feel like they are actually “there.”
Even still, our working hypothesis is that this evolution of visual media technologies has produced a parallel continuum of witnessing, with each advance bringing the viewer closer to the experience of others—from print photography; to television; to interactive, immersive and social digital media; and now live-motion virtual reality. Moving along the continuum, the consumer becomes an increasingly active participant in the experience of witnessing, as the barriers between self and the other begin to erode. What’s more, virtual reality offers the promise of further breaking the “fourth wall” of journalism, wherein those represented become individuals possessing agency, rather than what Liisa Malkki has referred to as “speechless emissaries.”8 If this is the case, it will be because core concepts of virtual reality—such as immersion and presence—offer a qualitatively different media experience than other forms of visual representation.