Nieman Foundation at Harvard
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
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March 15, 2018, 11:55 a.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   March 15, 2018

Sure, virtual reality can help news organizations tell stories that their audiences wouldn’t be able to imagine or relate to in other ways. But are the efforts actually resulting in greater empathy?

A report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism shares findings from three different types of storytelling — immersive VR (via a head-mounted set), non-immersive VR (desktop-based), and text. (Here are the stories they used, from collaborations with the Associated Press, the Sierra Club, VR production agency RYOT, and more.)

The report’s authors, Tow Center fellows Dan Archer and Katharina Finger of the Empathetic Media VR company, found that, yes, stories consumed in VR formats “prompted a higher empathetic response than static photo/text treatments and a higher likelihood of participants to take ‘political or social action’ after viewing.” That “action” took the form of wanting to find out more about a specific topic, sharing the story with a family member or friend, donating to an NGO related to the issue presented in the story, or volunteering with a similar organization.

Empathy isn’t all about taking action, though; just perceiving someone else’s emotional cues or sharing their emotional state counts as “walking in another’s virtual shoes,” according to the researchers. That’s what other studies and news organizations have been trying to get at for years.

This study suggests that immersive or non-immersive VR left more of an impact than text-only content, both in users’ absorption during the experiences and their interest in finding out more about the issue presented in the experiences. People who consumed the story via text were 13 to 18 percent less likely to seek out more information later than those who consumed it via VR. Plus, there wasn’t a big difference between users’ interest when using the stylish head-mounted sets or the less-intrusive desktop videos, the researchers found, concluding that while the immersion is greater with the headsets, the lack of one isn’t a deal-breaker for VR’s potential.

A report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism a year ago determined that VR still isn’t quite catching on with consumers, much of the content is uncompelling, and oh yeah, there’s still that whole monetization question.

The Tow report, though, offers guidelines for making quality VR content that resonates. Some of their top findings and suggestions:

Key findings:

    • Our research found that VR formats prompted a higher empathetic response than static photo/text treatments and a higher likelihood of participants to take “political or social action” after viewing.
    • Users who experienced the VR treatments reported higher levels of immersion and were more likely to report a desire to take action or find out more about the topic as a result.
    • In the longer term (both two and five weeks after viewing initial treatments), those who registered a higher empathetic response upon first viewing were more likely to recall the stories they had seen.
    • There is a negligible difference in perceived levels of interactivity between the head-mounted and desktop-based virtual reality treatments, suggesting head-mounted displays (HMDs) aren’t a deal-breaker.
    • Viewers using HMDs reported higher levels of immersion, but also some user discomfort.
    • Trust in the narrator is essential to building empathy, inspiring immersion, and heightening engagement in the narrative. This is best achieved by ensuring that the narrator maintain a consistently visible presence on-screen.
    • Research showed that stories with one clear protagonist serving as a guide through the VR experience are consistently more enjoyable for users.
    • Stories that are at least in part enjoyable are most likely to have impact on viewers.
    • Audience over-familiarity with a story can negatively impact the level of immersion or enjoyment of a story.
    • The lower a user’s news consumption habits or familiarity with the technology or story, the more likely they are to be positively impacted and respond empathetically to cinematic VR.
    • Immersion and presence in VR are key, but still can’t outweigh a user’s lack of interest or over-familiarity with a subject.


    • When implementing VR in news-related storytelling, avoid overburdening or overwhelming the user with complicated, lengthy experiences or interfaces.
    • Remember that the choice of narrative and content influences and outweighs the actual interactive affordances of a VR experience.
    • The highest empathetic response was registered in users who were unfamiliar with the stories they viewed, suggesting the medium’s effectiveness in introducing a new topic or VR’s suitability for targeting infrequent news consumers. Focus on less well-known topics, as production value or storytelling alone cannot compensate for lack of user interest.
    • Audiences that find stories pleasant are far more likely to remember them in the long term; note the interesting correlation between palatability and impact.
    • Be cautious about showing too many scenes that can cause viewer discomfort; scenes of harsh conditions and suffering can drastically affect user comfort and enjoyment, triggering disengagement from the material and contributing to a drop in long-term memory recall and engagement. We recommend interspersing such scenes with less charged and more neutral material to counterbalance the effect.
    • Establish a trusting relationship between audiences and the same, single protagonist by including them in every scene.
    • Choose a narrator in your 360-degree videos that users trust, or include a consistent voice throughout.
    • Provide clear guidance on sharing VR stories, as audiences are still unfamiliar with how to do so once they have finished viewing the experience.
    • Remember that VR is by no means a catch-all solution for instilling empathy in all users. Like any other storytelling medium, its power lies not only in journalists’ flair for narrative, but also in audiences’ dispositional and contextual affinity for particular topics, which is as vulnerable to over-saturation as any other medium.
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