Dr. John Pavlik, a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at the School of Communication and Information, published his new book called “Journalism in the Age of Virtual Reality: How Experiential Media Are Transforming News” in September.
In his book, Pavlik discussed the idea of experiential news, an emerging kind of journalism which allows the public to virtually be immersed in the news and to experience it for themselves. Increasingly, news told through virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) gives the public the opportunity to experience the news from a first-person perspective, rather than the typical third-person perspective.
Pavlik credited Nonny de la Peña, a journalist, for coming up with the idea of allowing the public to be virtual eyewitnesses to news. Aside from being immersive and providing a first-person experience, VR can also be multisensory, Pavlik said. VR can engage the public not only through visual and auditory sensors, but also through haptic and tactile sensors as well.
AR and VR technology are used in products such as Google Glass, glasses that are made to augment reality to the consumer, Google Cardboard, a VR headset and even different applications on smartphones. Pavlik cited Snapchat, the social media application popular among younger demographics, to be an example of the technological manifestation of AR in smartphones. The filters on Snapchat allow the user to virtually superimpose an image on themselves.
The New York Times, USA Today, BBC, The Guardian and other news sources have already adopted and employed VR and AR into their journalism, Pavlik said, particularly for large news stories such as the escape of Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, commonly known as El Chapo. The tunnel route he took to escape the authorities who came to arrest him at his home was depicted on the news using VR.
Through his own research, Pavlik has demonstrated that the public, especially the younger generation, seems to be interested in AR and VR media. Research at Columbia University discovered that news stories told through VR evoke more empathy.
“They found that immersive stories, (told from) 360 videos, can increase the audience's or the users' empathy with the stories or the characters within the story,” Pavlik said. “If someone is living in a refugee camp and the story takes you inside and from the point of view of a young child in a refugee camp, it gives you a greater sense of understanding or empathy for what that child is going through, than the more traditional text-based story does.”
Pavlik said VR technology could have downsides if used excessively, such as consumers being desensitized to the news, negative health effects among young people or heightened anxiety among consumers due to the emotional nature of VR news. Pavlik also believes that an individual's privacy is a concern with VR technology.
“We already know that these big digital companies track us for everything we are doing. If we start doing stuff with more VR here, there are a lot of potential problems that we have to be very conscious of and work to prevent,” Pavlik said.
He said the rise of misinformation in society and the problems it presents for journalists were part of his inspiration to write the book. Pavlik said VR can help aid the preservation of facts, but can also aid in disseminating misinformation, depending on how it is used.
“People who want to mislead the public or have campaigns of misinformation, could take it to a whole other level. They could start doing ultra deep fakes that take an actual fact, but then twist it just a little bit, so it looks like it’s a different circumstance,” Pavlik said. “But I think it will be up to journalists to ensure that our news, using these immersive forms, adheres strictly to the facts – that we don't distort and we don’t misrepresent information.”
Pavlik does not think VR nor AR will replace the traditional way of viewing the news through television. He said that the new technology can be a supplement to the news we already consume.