What can publishers do to try to prevent public concern around the ethics of virtual reality?

Virtual reality is an exciting and innovative development which has huge potential. It creates a whole new dimension for journalism, offering a powerful form of immersive storytelling.  It has the ability to place viewers on the scene of an event, not only transporting them to another place and time but seeing it from the inside and engaging them emotionally. Unfortunately, the power of virtual reality as an ’empathy tool’  also means that it can be used in a negative capacity.

Catherine Allen in an article for journalism.co.uk explains that the hype around virtual reality is  increasing public concern which could lead to “moral panic”. There is little known about the lasting effects of virtual reality. Not much research has been done, especially in the long-term as it has not been around long enough. It is this fear of the unknown, coupled with negative media coverage that could lead to virtual reality being seen as a threat.

There is no strict written ethical code regarding virtual reality. A first code was developed by two German philosophers which focuses on the psychological effects of engaging in virtual reality. Making it clear that subjects taking part in experiments using virtual reality should be informed about the risks involved. The extent to which behaviour can be influenced is unknown. These warnings should also be put in to place in relation to the use of virtual reality within the media. Publishers should inform the audience of the risks involved. If the footage is based on sensitive issues, contains upsetting or flashing images then prior warning should be given.

The areas which give rise to the most concern are those involving sex, pornography and violence. There are ethical issues relating to human behaviour and motivations. For example desensitisation, virtual criminality and the potential to lose sense of right and wrong. Over half of adults who were questioned about virtual reality expressed a fear of becoming addicted and of how it will affect their real-world behaviour. Publishers need to be aware of these fears and must connect with their audience in order to allay them.

In order to achieve this publishers need to involve the public every step of the way. Before, during and after creation. Ideas need to be tested early on with an audience to see their response. To see how it sits with them, to listen to their views and opinions in order to make adjustments accordingly. Continuous feedback is needed throughout testing and also when the stories are out there and finalised. Consumers then need a channel to vent their feelings, a space to voice their opinions.

There will always be those who are critical and sceptical about virtual reality. However, as virtual reality moves towards the mainstream, publishers need to address these fears. As Catherine Allen explains, “The industry is what we make it, and consumer perceptions are still being shaped.” Publishers, therefore, have the responsibility of chosing and presenting content which crafts an honest user experience. This must be based on a firm foundation of traditional journalistic ethics.



Scott, C. (2017). 5 key considerations for ethical virtual reality storytelling. [online] Journalism.co.uk. Available at: https://www.journalism.co.uk/news/5-key-considerations-for-ethical-virtual-reality-storytelling/s2/a684394/

Scott, C. (2017). Why moral panic could be detrimental to the virtual reality industry. [online] Journalism.co.uk. Available at: https://www.journalism.co.uk/news/why-publishers-of-virtual-reality-need-to-be-aware-of-moral-panic/s2/a702215/

Scott, C. (2017). Podcast available at: https://www.journalism.co.uk/podcast/why-publishers-should-take-measures-to-prevent-a-moral-panic-over-virtual-reality/s399/a702517/

Panetta, F. (2016). The Guardian and virtual reality. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/membership/2016/oct/04/the-guardian-and-virtual-reality



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