(notes for a longer essay)
What can be a more powerful way to understand and engage in an event than participating in it? Much work on implementing virtual reality and 360 video as part of the journalistic offer in major news outlets seems to be based on the premise that placing the viewer inside a story via virtual reality glasses can lead to fuller understanding and greater emotional response to an event. In both journalistic and academic circles, it is argued that immersion through virtual reality headsets increases responses of cooperation and reciprocity from audiences, and therefore enhances empathy (see for example de la Peña et al. (2010), Domínguez-Martín (2015), Constine (2015), Delahoussaye (2015), Pérez Seijo (2017)). Since empathy has been defined as “the capacity to take up the perspective of another person, that is, to see things as that person sees them and to feel what that person feels” (Lakoff and Johnson p. 309), it is plausible to think that immersive journalism through virtual reality, which aims to provide a “first-person experience of the events or situation described in news stories” (de la Peña et al. 2010: 291), will make us engage more deeply with the news being presented.
Two key ideas are present in the project of immersive journalism and its implementation through virtual reality. The first idea is that engagement with a story is heightened by being placed in a situation. For this to be effective, the virtual environment should become as much as possible the real world of the viewer through an act of embodiment. Presence, place illusion, plausibility, and virtual body ownership are some of the concepts that have been used to describe the qualities leading to immersion in a virtual world (Slater et al. 2010, Takatalo et al. 2008). The second idea is that adopting a first person point of view will heighten engagement. “First person” may mean multiple types of position within the story: from direct agent having an impact in the narrative, to witness or bystander, to invisible spectator; one may step on the feet of the subject of the narrative, or one may be merely present in someone else’s narrative (de la Peña et al. 2010).
Importantly, in her seminal papers about the project of immersive journalism, De la Peña did not claim that the goal of immersive journalism was to increase empathy. Rather, it was to offer a way to understand the news in a more profound manner, one that was as close as possible to that of going to the places where events unfolded (de la Peña et al. 2010). More recently, however, claims have grown about the benefits of virtual reality, 360 video, and thereby immersive journalism as “empathy machines” (Constine 2015). An equivocation seems to be taking place between what virtual reality can provide as a technology and what the project of immersive journalism demands from journalistic practice to achieve its goals. I would argue that virtual reality is a component, but not the only element, of an effective immersive journalism practice.
Two questions worth considering are thus: how does “being there” help the mission of journalism of engaging the citizenry? And how can becoming the first person or bystander in a news event enhance empathy?
Defining Immersive Journalism
When Nonny de la Peña introduced the concept of immersive journalism in her 2010 paper, she explained it as a method of production of the news that had as goal to create a first person experience of the news. The idea was to give enhanced (unprecedented) access to a sensory experience of a new event, which in turn would also heighten emotion. The project was to explore the role of presence in news communication (de la Peña et al. 2010). Immersive journalism thus sought to take us where the events took place, as participants of these events, be it through the eyes of a main person in the event, or as bystanders. Importantly, presence was qualia that could be achieved through multiple means, be it a Cave system, a Head Mounted Display (HDM) or an online virtual world. The underlying tenet was that more presence meant being closer to the truth of the events. One of the constructs presented was RAIR, spelled out as “Response As If Real”. Other constructs included Place Illusion (PI) and Plausibility (Psi).
A main argument, though somewhat incompletely presented in the paper, was that the deluge of media in which we where increasingly immersed had as a consequence a disengagement. Immersive journalism, it was said, would reinstitute emotional involvement with the news events. This implied that one could experience the synthetic world invoked through immersive technologies such as VR headsets as closer to the real world than say a text or video rendering of the same events.
In one of de la Peña’s immersive journalism projects described in the paper, the idea was to reconstruct the feeling of being a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. Participants were placed in a virtual environment using a head mounted display, a VR headset, which gave accurate tracking of their position and body movements in the scene. Respondents in her research said that the experience was at times frightening and uncomfortable, that they felt helpless, and even though they were not told the scene was about Guantanamo Bay, one of the respondents made the association with being a prisoner in Iraq and feeling what it would be like (de la Peña 2010).
However, this immersion into the journalistic story as a first person participant seems to be in contrast with some of the aims of objectivity of the project of journalism itself. For instance, Dominguez discusses how traditional journalism uses, and to an extent depends upon, the rhetoric of distance (Dominguez 2013: 33). The golden rule is to use impersonal, objective journalism that relates “the facts” without the intervention of personal views (fairness doctrine). Dominguez points out that this is obviously an utopia: journalists posses a subjective contextual knowledge that is dependent on their personal biography, journalists select facts and order them according to what they subjectively think is the best logic, and whether consciously or unconsciously, journalists have intentions when communicating the news.
From a philosophical standpoint, Brandt (1976) has described empathy as a reaction to someone else’s emotion where we respond with the same emotion. For Wondra and Elsworth, empathic emotions are real emotions that can be understood as either “caring for others, validating others, or understanding other’s emotions”.
From an evolutionary perspective, Zaki and Ochner point to empathy as one of the explanations for how a weak species such as humans has been not only able to survive but to thrive and dominate on Earth. Our long parenting requires survival mechanisms such as the capacity for cooperation and for understanding others to be in place, and empathy is in this view a desirable and necessary condition for humans to succeed as species. Empathy also acts as a motivational mechanism and driver for action with others and our environment: in small groups living in primitive conditions, benevolent behaviour (of which empathy is one variant) increases chances of survival (Trivers 1971).
Neuroscience research has shown that looking at the suffering of others, whereas in person or through pictures (i.e. photos of facial expressions of pain) activates areas in our brain connected to the pain matrix. When we can directly observe (but not just imagine) others in pain, our somatosensory cortex is activated – that is, we use the same brain area involved in our own individual sensory experience of pain or touch to process our direct perception of someone else’s pain.
Brandt makes a distinction between perspective taking, empathy, sympathy, and compassion as increasing levels of involvement with others. Perspective taking falls into empathy when it leads to caring for others. If perspective taking leads to either altruistic or selfish behaviour, it is also considered as part of empathy. When empathy leads to feelings of concerns for others, it is called either compassion or sympathy. Sympathy is a rational understanding of the pain of others, while compassion entails an active engagement with their pain (pain here is used as a general example, but it can be any other emotion). It is possible to distinguish between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. It is also thought that different areas of the brain are connected to different types of empathy.
Hofmann has the most comprehensive psychological theory about empathy as a learning process, where five mechanisms are involved: mimicry, classical conditioning, direct association, mediated association, and role taking. The first three mechanisms, which are primitive, automatic and involuntary, involve perceiving the target of empathy directly.
Mimicry entails observation of postures and expressions, and imitation of these, which in turn leads to feeling the emotion others feel. It can be described as an emotional contagion that produces feedback. This mechanism is automatic and unconscious, and is wired into our capacity to recognize and react to faces. For instance, if one directly sees the facial expression of another person laughing at a comedy skit, and one involuntarily imitates that laugh, one may then feel the happiness the other person is feeling. However, one will feel of the other person’s emotion and one’s own as two separate emotions. The product is a subjective feeling of the emotion within what is called the facial expression feedback hypothesis (refs Lard 74). (Wondra and Elsworth)
The classical conditioning model entails that we learn to recognize cues from another person’s emotional state and learn to react to those emotional states accordingly. Direct association ties other’s experiences to one’s own memories of past experiences, which then leads to an emotional response.
Mediated association and role taking are considered by Hoffmann to require higher levels of cognitive processing. Mediated association works through words and language, and involves the indirect perception of the other’s emotion. For instance, someone tells you about a distressful situation at work, and you imagine that situation and associate it with your own bad experiences at the office, to then go on to feel the emotions the other person may be feeling. In role taking, one is putting oneself through imagination and memory in the role of the other person. This process involves the conscious effort to imagine the situation and emotions that others are in. If the imagined situation is vivid enough, one may be able to feel the same emotion as the other person. For Hoffmann, role taking is the only instance in which empathy may not depend on mechanisms such as mimicry and prior experience.
Brandt discusses classical conditioning as one of the explanations for how children may develop empathic responses: a child responds with crying when feeling pain, so when hearing another child cry, the child will associate the cry with pain and begin to cry in response as an expectation of the upcoming sensation of pain in him or her as well. In this view, empathy is thus the automated response to other people in which we recognize the source of the emotion via the expressed behaviour, and somehow expect that source to affect us in the near future, as Pavlov dogs salivating to a bell. Brandt cites as an alternative explanation the idea of empathy as an internalization of representations of emotions. In this explanation, one will have learned the sources and consequences of various emotions, and created an internal representation, so that when seeing those emotions in others, one will grab on this knowledge to feel and respond in a way that would match the occurrence these emotions have on oneself, thus metaphorically putting oneself in the other person’s shoes. The key is the internal representation of emotions, which serves as a mediator to understand how the other is feeling, and which helps us respond “as the other would”, first understanding the other’s pain and secondly by wanting to alleviate that pain as one would want to do for oneself.
In terms of the moral logic that accompanies the concept of empathy, the idea is that if one can experience the pain others are feeling, and one wants to preserve one’s own sense of well-being, then one will also want others to regain a sense of well-being.
(to be continued)
Constine, J (2015) Virtual reality, the empathy machine. TechCrunch. Available: https://techcrunch.com/2015/02/01/what-it-feels-like/ (consulted on 21 May 2017).
De La Peña, N, Weil, P, Llobera, J, Giannopoulos, E, Pomés, A, Spanlang, B, Friedman, D, Sanchez-Vives, MV & Slater, M (2010) Immersive journalism: Immersive virtual reality for the first-person experience of news. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, Vol 19, No 4, pp. 291-301.
Delahoussaye, J (2015) Virtual games try to generate real empathy for faraway conflict. NPR. Available: http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/01/25/379417927/virtual-games-try-to-generate-real-empathy-for-faraway-conflict (consulted on 21 May 2017).
Domínguez-Martín, E (2015) Periodismo inmersivo o cómo la realidad virtual y el videojuego influyen en la interfaz e interactividad del relato de actualidad. Immersive journalism or how virtual reality and video games are influencing the interface and the interactivity of news storytelling., Vol 24, No 4, pp. 413-423.
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