Can VR Help Journalism Regain It’s Credibility?

Trust in journalism is at an all time low, with surveys from the likes of Edelman and Gallup revealing just 35% or so of the public have faith in the press.  Suffice to say, this is a multi-faceted problem and so there isn’t one single solution to the challenges faced by both the media industry itself, but also society as a whole.

One interesting possibility was proposed by a recent study into the use of virtual reality in the media.  The researchers displayed a range of stories in various formats, from text-based articles to virtual reality based versions.  It found that ‘readers’ would feel more engaged and empathetic to the protagonists when learning about them via VR.

“VR stories provide a better sense of being right in the midst of the story than text with pictures and even 360-degree video on a computer screen,” the authors say. “This is remarkable given that we used two stories from the New York Times Magazine, which were high quality and rich in imagery even in the text version.”

Pros and cons

The authors urge a degree of caution however, as whilst the use of VR did improve engagement with the story, it also may result in falling credibility and reduced trust in the story.  For instance, they found that when participants reported a higher sense of being at the scene of the story, this coincided with lower trustworthiness ratings for the story.

“What really makes people trust VR more is that it creates a greater sense of realism compared to text and that creates the trustworthiness,” the authors say. “But, if it doesn’t give that sense of realism, it can affect credibility. If developers try to gamify it or make it more fantasy-like, for example, people may begin to wonder about the credibility of what they’re seeing.”

Suffice to say, the technical aspects of creating a story in VR are substantial, so it’s unlikely to become widely adopted in our 24/7 news environment, but the authors contend that 360-degree video could be a useful half-way house.

“On many things 360-degree video on a computer does as well as viewing it on a VR viewer, so you might not need to go through the trouble of putting together the cardboard viewer and slipping in the phone to experience it,” they say. “But, for being transported to the scene of the action, the VR viewer beats it.”

Other issues emerged that deserve attention too however.  For instance, because of the immersive nature of the format, viewers would often struggle to accurately recall details about the story.  It seemed to impact them on an emotional rather than logical level.  To date however, it’s a relatively unexplored phenomenon, so the authors urge a degree of caution before deriving too many firm conclusions.

The industry has been impacted in a wide range of ways in recent years, and whilst these findings are certainly interesting, it’s difficult at this stage to imagine VR being a widely used platform for the consumption of news.  Time will tell however.