Immersive journalism – exploiting misery or awakening empathy?

By Evelina Kulp

When we were given the theme “immersive journalism and virtual reality”, our first assignment was to give examples of immersive journalism. My initial thought was Finland’s public broadcasting company YLE’s virtual reality project “What if Helsinki was like Aleppo”, which was released in early 2017. The project had resulted in a 360-video located in the city centre of Helsinki. In the beginning, everything looks normal, until about a minute in, when the well-known facades and buildings are suddenly shattered. You hear bombs dropping in the distance and you see smoke and dust cover the sky. Helsinki has become a war zone.

Journalist Peter Westerholm, who was involved in the project, said in an interview with YLE that the idea of the VR-project was to describe what makes people flee their homes. They chose Helsinki as the location for the video to give people a frame of reference that they are well acquainted with and usually feel safe in. The purpose was to give people an understanding of the current situation in Syria.

In my opinion, the Aleppo-Helsinki video was very telling and fulfilling of its purpose. If this type of virtual reality increases people’s understanding for war and empathy for refugees – I think immersive journalism is a good thing. It’s a way of achieving one of the most important functions of journalism – keeping the public informed and aware.

However, it is important to remember that a virtual way of experiencing something may also be a privileged experience. When you look at the bombed ruins in Helsinki, you feel something, but it does not mean that you are anywhere near experiencing what it is truly like to live in a war zone. Your body has not been in the constant state of high-level anxiety and fear for the past months, or maybe years. You have all your basic needs fulfilled. You are safe. And, perhaps the biggest difference – you can escape the situation whenever you like, and it would cost you nothing – which is really not the case for people living in war zones.

As the use of virtual realities is likely to increase in the future, we will have to discuss within which boundaries they are created and interpreted. The creator of a virtual reality has a lot of power. As journalists, we will have to be strict with which angles we choose to portray certain events and respect those that are affected by them first hand. We must also have clear intentions with our use of VR. The purpose of deepening our audience’s understanding is acceptable, but exploiting someone’s misery for an clickbait-friendly experience is not.