“Can We Virtually Care?”: An Experimental Study on the Impact of True Immersive Journalism on Audience Engagement and the Motivated Response to Distant Suffering
by Rajeshwari Singh
Thesis supervisor: Dr. Penelope Sheets Thibaut
The concept of immersive journalism revolves around producing news in a manner that enables one to teleport to different locations and gain a first-person experience of the events as described in news stories (de la Peña et al., 2010). While the development of virtual reality (VR) technology is constant, there is a lack of empirical research on immersive journalism and its impact on news consumption. The existing research focuses mostly on 360° videos, which are considered easier alternatives and do not qualify as ‘truly immersive’. Moreover, consuming news through everyday channels like social media or news programmes about events that are not ‘close’, like distant wars or conflicts, is oftentimes more passive, and the overwhelming coverage of human suffering can also cause desensitization.
This study stemmed from the assumption of virtual reality leading to an overall richer news experience and hypothesized a higher sense of presence, understanding of distant suffering, engagement with the topic, and longevity of these effects as compared to more traditionally digital means of news consumption. By drawing a comparison between a computer graphics (CG) based VR news story and real news coverage and also collecting qualitative feedback, the novel approach of this approach also allowed for compensating the low external validity that is associated with laboratory experiments to a great extent.
The study made use of a two group between-subjects experimental design, with the groups being exposed to news through virtual reality or through a flat screen multimedia device (Figure 2), and was conducted at the Behavioural Science Virtual Reality Lab at the University of Amsterdam. A total of 142 participants were recruited, out of which 121 participated in the lab.
The crisis in Yemen was determined as the optimal case example to be used as stimuli, being determined the biggest humanitarian crises in the world (UNFPA, 2021), and as the participants were expected to be physically situated in the Netherlands, it also fit the bill of geographical non-proximity.
The VR stimulus was CG-based, made by a team of indie developers using Unreal Engine and Metahuman, and could be viewed on Meta Oculus Quest 2. The news script used in the environment was made using news items and reports from the Yemen crisis over the years available in text from highly reliable sources. The video stimulus for the flat screen was made using existing news clips and the script employed in VR stimulus was not used. The use of professionally produced clips in the video was intentional to give the user a sense of watching traditional news reporting for being able to draw conclusions that are transferable to real life and provide a meaningful as well as practical comparison. The topic of areas covered were, however, kept similar with the aim of keeping the information as equivalent as possible.
In line with previous research in the field of immersive journalism, the effect of virtual reality on an individual’s sense of presence was strongly prevalent. Additionally, individuals that viewed the news report in virtual reality were prompted to engage with the topic both at the individual level of subjective involvement and social level more than those that watched a traditional news video. Those within the virtual reality group also showed a higher subjective involvement with the news topic than those in the traditional media group over the course of the week, further contributing to the goal of creating awareness around distant crises abandoned by the mainstream media.
Overall, the findings of this study indicated that the future of immersive journalism is promising. The positive effect of a CG-based creative nonfiction virtual news environment, made using minimal resources, on eliciting a strong sense of presence amply demonstrated that better investment in similar productions by well-established media organizations can potentially lead to large-scale impact on shaping audience behaviour towards distant humanitarian crises.
The Digital Communication Methods Lab is an initiative of the Research Priority Area Commmunication, at the University of Amsterdam.