The Ethics Of 360° Journalism

October 29, 2018 • Ethics and Quality, Research, Technology • by

360-degree videos were recently hailed as the “next big thing” in journalism. The hope was that they would enable audiences to get immersed in new environments and situations, thus allowing for greater understanding and interaction with “the news”.

New research by Stanford academic Tanja Aitamurto, however, has now revealed that there are some serious downsides to the fancy new videos. Instead of good journalism, most videos rely on excessive emotional involvement, the dramatisation of events, and on top of that, forget about some of the classic rules of what makes good journalism.

According to Aitamurto’s study which was recently published in New Media & Society, 360-degree videos often risk altering the truth. Reporters shelved the truth-telling elements of their investigations, instead favouring more ideological and personal messages in their videos. Aitamurto also warns of a potential shift to a communication style that is more akin to advertising, public relations or propaganda, rather than journalistic reporting.

Two Paradoxes At The Heart Of Immersive Visual Reporting

The study also highlights two paradoxes that characterise immersive films. The first one is the spectators’ freedom to choose their own point of view. From a journalist’s perspective, this would ideally translate into greater transparency. However, the 360-degree vision also means a loss of control. The journalist no longer gets to decide what viewers should see and on what they should focus their attention.

Method: For her analysis, Aitamurto interviewed a sample of 26 reporters and editors who produced 360-degree videos between 2016 and 2017 for newspapers such as USA Today, Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian, and broadcasters such as BBC and Al Jazeera. The videos dealt with complex issues, such as the situation in refugee camps, famines in Africa, natural disasters, but also lighter topics such as the arts, sport or even urban planning.

Suddenly, each viewer has the possibility to choose his or her own field of vision, thus creating their own (subjective) narrative. This opens the door for numerous ethical problems. What if someone accidentally appears in a video who doesn’t want to be there? What if viewers get to see things that are too grueling to show them? Consequently, to avoid these pitfalls and to ensure the right message gets across, some reporters provide practical guidance on how to navigate the 360-degree video spaces, such as graphic movements, animations, or audio suggestions. Some even block the spherical vision in certain contexts. Yet, these methods, although effective and in some cases sensible, limit the freedom of the viewer. And they run counter to the core idea of 360-degree videos: a greater deal of transparency and objectivity through the autonomy of the viewer.

In the second paradox, journalists compromise objectivity through the post-production of footage in an attempt to make their videos more engaging. Examples are the use of CGI – computer-generated imagery – or other special effects. Ideally, what audiences ultimately see is reality as it happened. Yet, sometimes even the best footage requires a bit of brushing up to make it more appealing. This creates a tension that is hard to navigate. Finally, manipulating footage without indicating that the material has been altered also violates the ethical code of visual journalism.

Immersive Journalism Poses Challenging Questions For The Media

However, despite her criticisms, the Stanford academic also emphasises the positive traits of 360-degree videos. They can reinforce a sense of presence on part of the audience and increase involvement with the story. Similarly, the relative ease with which these videos can be produced makes them more appealing for editors than some other forms of immersive journalism.

Immersive visual reporting will likely never fully satisfy traditional conventions or squarely fit withing regulatory or ethical boundaries. 360-degree videos and comparable formats present a challenge to the question of what counts as “objective” or “transparent” and these questions will have to be continuously negotiated as the technology moves forward. Nevertheless, immersive visual journalism also theoretically offers the potential to allow for greater accuracy and objectivity in reporting. How journalism deals with all this in the coming years will be, without question, exciting to watch.

The full study is published in New Media & Society and can be found here.

You might also be interested in Digital News Report: Use Of Social Media For News Falls.

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