NY Times VR raises new ethical issues

[It’s clear that the mainstreaming of VR will bring lots of ethical challenges, largely because of its ability to evoke presence. This is from The New York Times (see the related post on November 11. –Matthew]

NYTimes VR first person view

The Tricky Terrain of Virtual Reality

Margaret Sullivan, The Public Editor
November 14, 2015

The arrival of a small cardboard box with last Sunday’s Times represented, in its unobtrusive way, a collision of cultures.

Here was a piece of cutting-edge journalism — promising virtual reality, no less — arriving the old-fashioned way, hand delivered with the print newspaper. The box itself (when assembled, it looked like a Fresh Direct container for three jumbo eggs) struck me as an almost instant anachronism: ready for its place on a historical timeline of the digital age’s evolution. This is what happened in 2015.

The box itself seems destined to be remembered with a disbelieving laugh, like the shoe-size mobile phones in a “Seinfeld” rerun.

But at the moment, this is new. The Times has leapt into this technology with fanfare and has gathered acclaim. The goggles contained within the cardboard, when combined with a downloaded app on a smartphone, gives viewers a 360-degree immersion into an 11-minute film called “The Displaced,” the stories of three children — from Lebanon, Ukraine and South Sudan — torn from their homes by war.

Many Times readers were excited by what they experienced and sent congratulatory notes. Clare Erlander of Carlsbad, Calif., wrote to thank The Times for the virtual-reality glasses and for the film, calling it “an amazing experience.”

Writing in Fortune, Rick Broida described his reaction: “Five seconds into the film, I was struck by the immediacy — and the intimacy — of the images. These aren’t computer-generated faces and landscapes; they’re real people in real places, and I felt like I was standing there myself, not just observing from afar.”

But not everyone was pleased. Bob Basofin wrote in to say he didn’t understand the technology and was baffled by the instructions. His counsel to The Times: “Just stick to print.” (That horse, though, is out of its 3D-printed barn.)

Robert Kaiser, the former managing editor of The Washington Post, wrote to me with a stronger complaint, based on an article introducing the project by Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times Magazine, who helped oversee it. The Times, Mr. Kaiser wrote, seems to be touting a process “that will often be based on tricks and deceptions by photographers/cameramen.”

The editor’s letter from Mr. Silverstein, noted Mr. Kaiser, described how the virtual-reality filmmaker works to ensure that “the action unfolds the way he imagined.” Mr. Silverstein wrote that “V.R. usually involves more coordination between filmmaker and subject than in traditional video journalism.” And he said “a subject may be asked to repeat an action, or wait until the filmmaker is out of sight to complete a task.”

This, Mr. Kaiser said, is tantamount to faking a scene — and that’s not sound journalism.

Michael Oreskes, the news chief at N.P.R. and a former Times editor, wrote a cautionary note to his staff about the venture. I asked him to send me the memo, which includes praise for the experiment along with concern: “Our stories can’t be virtually true. They must be fully real.”

Well before The Times’s experiment, Tom Kent, the standards editor at The Associated Press, wrote on Medium that the nexus of journalism and V.R. technology means working through the challenges: “Common understandings of what techniques are ethically acceptable and what needs to be disclosed to viewers can go a long way toward guarding the future of V.R. as a legitimate journalistic tool.”

I talked to Mr. Silverstein, and others at The Times, about these concerns, which they made clear that they are taking seriously.

“There is a whole host of ethical considerations and standards issues that have to be grappled with,” Mr. Silverstein said, and The Times is doing just that. He and those involved with making the film met at length with the standards editor, Philip B. Corbett, among others, to go through the film piece by piece to make sure that it fairly represented reality. And his editor’s letter was meant to be as transparent as possible with readers about the process.

Ben C. Solomon, who shot the film, told me by email that the V.R. process brings special challenges.

“Since V.R. films a scene in 360 degrees, in every direction at the same time, there is no place for the photographer or filmmaker to stand unless they become a constant character in the scene. In traditional photo or video, they stand behind their camera and craft scenes so they do not appear to be present.” So, he said, “we had to hide.”

Mr. Corbett told me that “it would be crazy to think that all the implications, questions and issues have been settled and determined, or that we have a fully formed set of rules.” After all, he said, “It took decades to develop a body of best practices in news photography.”

And both he and Mr. Silverstein made the point that some well-accepted kinds of still photography and videography use techniques that are not strictly realistic. For example, video “B-roll” may show a school principal walking down a hallway in a scene that may be staged rather than candid. Similarly, a photographer setting up a portrait of a news subject might ask her to stand near a window and in a particular kind of light.

None of this is meant to trick the viewer. Similar considerations come into play with V.R. filming, Mr. Corbett said. But there are times when staging becomes too artificial; one sequence was removed from “The Displaced” because “the photographer was too active in arranging things,” he said.

The Times is considering how it will handle disclosure about the process in future films – for example, will a description of the techniques appear in every pre-roll? Transparency can’t solve every problem, but it’s an absolute necessity at this stage. So is recognizing that virtual reality isn’t appropriate at all for some journalistic purposes.

If The Times is going to help lead the way in using this new technology, it should do the same for grappling with the new ethical considerations.

Call it thinking outside the cardboard box.

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