Now that a virtual reality (VR) experience is available to anyone with a smartphone and $15 to spend on a Google Cardboard headset, VR has become a viable new medium that has attracted filmmakers, game designers and, increasingly, journalists, documentarians and news juggernauts like The Guardian, The New York Times and PBS’s Frontline.
The journalistic possibilities virtual reality presents are monumental: not just to show viewers a story, but to place them in it. In 2015, both The Times and Frontline rolled out their first VR projects. The Times brought viewers into the neighborhoods of children affected by the global refugee crisis (“The Displaced”) and to the fence that divides the adjacent towns of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, where an unarmed Mexican teenager was shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent (“10 Shots Across the Border”). Frontline, meanwhile, took viewers to the foot of the tree where the most recent Ebola virus is said to have originated (“Ebola Outbreak”), and into a field full of villagers in South Sudan awaiting air drops of food (“On the Brink of Famine”).
“Being able to go to a place and be present with a person is going to affect your understanding of the story,” says Jenna Pirog, the Times’ first VR editor. “As the technology evolves, the implication that you’ll eventually be able to go to a place in real time and see a news event occurring is huge.”
But for now, Pirog and others are focused on a more immediate goal: Figuring out the best way to tell a journalistic story in VR. Traditional filmmaking techniques like montage, quick cuts and talking head interviews don’t translate well in VR, so practitioners are still parsing this new medium’s narrative vernacular. Even the medium’s quintessential quality—immersion—raises thorny questions about the role of the journalist, and journalism itself.