Study: VR for news prompts empathy, but only with the right mix of factors

Simulate the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, like Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Or recreate the sensory experience of the first year of life like The Guardian. Give out over a million Google Cardboard viewers to your print subscribers like The New York Times, so people can go on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton through a smartphone app. Virtual reality is no longer the next frontier for journalism—it’s here and it’s accessible at low cost to the news consumer.

Outlets such as Vice, The Wall Street Journal, and PBS’s Frontline are making the bet that cinematic virtual reality yields deeper, more immersive news stories that land with a greater emotional impact and inspire a sense of connection. While a new study published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism finds that this hypothesis is generally true, conditions for converting that empathy into longer-term story recall, attitude change about a topic, or motivation to donate to a related cause have to be just right.

Researchers Dan Archer and Katharina Finger recruited 180 people in New York City to view or read five-minute treatments of either 360-degree video or text-based narratives, recording their responses to the content immediately after, and two and fives week later. They predicted that the multi-sensory stimuli of the VR treatments would produce a more empathetic response in viewers than the static, text-based counterparts.

Overall, this proved to be correct. Analyzing cognitive responses from follow-up surveys showed that users who experienced stories in virtual reality reported higher levels of immersion, a higher likelihood of taking “political or social action,” and were more likely to recall what they’d seen weeks later when compared to those who read similar text stories. There was, the researchers found, a negligible difference in impact between VR stories watched via head-mounted display and those viewed on a desktop computer.

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Perhaps more noteworthy, though, is the study’s investigation into whether the VR format is better suited to particular stories or audiences. Of the three stories—about a boy living inside a jungle refugee camp in Calais, France; a day in the life of a girl in Sub-Saharan Africa; and the dangers of climate change—the highest empathy levels were registered among users who initially knew little about the subject matter of the story they watched. In the case of Act in Paris, the story about climate change, those who expressed the least interest in the topic felt more connected to the content than those who reported a general interest in climate change to begin with. While the sample group was admittedly limited, comprised primarily of well-educated millennials, the study shows that over-familiarity with a topic can negatively impact a viewer’s level of immersion or enjoyment.

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Along the same lines, participants who reported consuming news less frequently—as little as one to two times a month—responded with more empathy to all stories than participants who read or watch news on a regular basis, suggesting that topic oversaturation should be a concern for VR news producers.

Narrator trust, the research finds, is also essential to creating empathy inside a virtual reality environment. Stories with one clear protagonist, who can serve as a guide, were reported as consistently more enjoyable among viewers. Participants experiencing Growing Up Girl, about a young woman living on the border between Kenya and Tanzania, trusted the narrator the most. Act in Paris, narrated with a voiceover by Jared Leto—who never appears on screen—scored the lowest in this category.

Finally, enjoyment matters. Stories that were said to be, at least in part, pleasant and fun to view had greater impact. And audiences were more apt to remember them in the long-term. For example, even though Act in Paris highlights the perils of climate change, it does so while featuring appealing footage of a boat ride through Alaskan glaciers. This story scored higher across the board in user comfort level and enjoyment when compared to the others, which placed viewers inside scenes of squalor and suffering. Data suggests that viewer discomfort, which can trigger disengagement, can contribute to an inability to recall what happened weeks after viewing.

Newsrooms should remember that virtual reality is by no means a catch-all for connecting with viewers and motivating action. Even inside virtual worlds, content is king. Flashy VR can’t outweigh a user’s lack of interest or over-familiarity with a subject, nor can it compensate for poor storytelling or production value. Even when done well, virtual reality’s chief advantage can at times be its downfall, as immersion in a place you don’t want to be can feel too unpleasant to remain engaged.

Virtual reality news stories done right, though, and targeted to the right people, hold so much promise. The trick will be striking the right balance between narration, enjoyment, and content.

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Abigail Hartstone is the interim publications and web editor at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She oversees research reports and edits the Tow vertical on CJR.