CAN IMMERSIVE JOURNALISM ENHANCE EMPATHY?
Ana Luisa Sanchez Laws
Major news outlets such as the New York Times and the Guardian have recently launched ambitious immersive journalism projects. Adopting the technologies and rhetoric of immersive journalism first presented by Nonny de la Pen a in 2010, these news outlets seek to use virtual reality and 360 video to create deeper engagement and empathy with their audiences. Yet can immersive journalism enhance empathy? This question is unanswerable without a thorough discussion of the concept of empathy, a discussion that so far has been missing in the academic literature and popular commentary. This article addresses the gap by presenting current debates about the definition of empathy and using these debates to critically assess de la Pena’s immersive journalism projects “IPSRESS” and “Hunger in Los Angeles,” and the recent New York Times “The Displaced” and Guardian’s “6 x 9” immersive journalism projects. The conclusion is twofold: On the one hand, I will argue that some immersive journalism projects are approaching a format that may enhance empathy, and on the other hand, I will propose that the project of immersive journalism needs to go beyond this goal and into adopting a more forceful role in shaping the future of virtual reality.
KEYWORDS empathy; immersive journalism; journalism ethics; media philosophy; virtual reality; 360 video
In recent years, major news outlets have started to use the techniques and rhetoric of “immersive journalism,” which builds on the premise that using virtual reality to place viewers “inside the news event” can enhance their emotional responses and empathy (see de la Pena et al. (2010), Domınguez Martın (2015), Constine (2015), Delahoussaye (2015), Perez Seijo (2017)). Such is the rationale behind “The Displaced,” a
multimedia reportage and virtual reality experience about the stories of three children in refugee camps published by the New York Times
in 2015. According to New York Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein (2015), “The Displaced” includes 360 video because of the technology’s capacity to incite empathy. It is also the rationale behind “6 x 9,” a virtual reality experience of solitary confinement published by the
Guardian in 2016. Guardian writer Caroline Davies (2016) argues that by virtually locating us where events take place, “6 x 9” will engage us more deeply than other forms of journalism and will help us empathize with prison inmates in this situation. Commentators, journalists, and academics argue that immersive journalism can enhance empathy, and through increasing investments in ….
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