In his fourteenth book The News: A User’s Manual, Swiss writer and philosopher Alain de Botton uses several vivid examples to show how news affects human mentality. One of his main critiques of modern news is that it fails to establish a strong enough connection between the reader/viewer and the people the news is about.
The above headline is a recent random one I took from the New York Times. It is terribly scary news, but reading over this headline, and even reading the full article, does not come close to conveying the absolute terror the people in Palmyra must be feeling right now. I highly doubt this article makes people reading it care as much as this piece of news warrants.
Making people care
De Botton believes more compelling, personal stories and images are required to make people care about the fate of others far away. What you want is to make people feel part of the news story, to really bring them in by transporting them to the actual scene, because walking in someone else’s shoes, even for a brief moment, can help you understand their situation so much better.
Understanding leads to empathy, and empathy leads to action.
So what medium allows you to transport yourself to any location and actually feel and believe you are there? Yup, you are reading this on a virtual reality blog, so indeed we are talking about just that!
Immersive Journalism is rebuilding news events in a virtual world, so you can actually go in and experience the scene from a first-person view. While this is an interesting way to approach how people consume news, it is extremely time-consuming and therefore highly impractical to recreate such scenes. Even Immersive Journalism’s founder Nonny de la Peña believes that as VR technology progresses, news events will eventually be filmed with 3D 360 degrees cameras.
And filming news events in this way is exactly what video director Chris Milk has done in his powerful Clouds over Sidra film about a 12-year old Syrian refugee. In his recent TED talk, Milk calls virtual reality cameras “the ultimate empathy machines.” In his words, VR can “connect humans to other humans in a profound way” that the world has never seen before in any other type of media.
The beauty of VR is that you can “show it to people who do not usually sit in a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan.”, but who are in the position to change the lives of the people in the film.
Besides the ability to give viewers the idea of being present in a different location, VR video is a highly democratic medium, because it’s no longer possible to steer the news by framing a shot. For example, just by looking at the picture above you might think: “Oh those Palestinians are at it again with their stone throwing..” But if you look at the full picture below you might understand why: because a massive bulldozer is demolishing their house!
The 360 degrees view that VR offers is something that film makers and journalists alike still have to learn to work with and fully exploit. There are no best practices yet, we all still have to figure that out together. A frame is merely a window into another world, but 3D 360 video allows you to actually enter that other world and feel part of it like you never would by looking at a flat screen.
So let’s use the power of this emerging technology to our advantage and create powerful connections with people in far away places, because a little more empathy could go a long way to making this pale blue dot we’re living on a teeny bit nicer.