Rethinking Ethics in Immersive Journalism: boundaries between fiction and non-fiction


The Immersive Journalism conceived by De la Peña et al. (2010) has opened disparate ethical discussions on what the limits are (Kent, 2015; Kool, 2016; Nash, 2017; Aitamurto, 2018; Sánchez Laws & Utne, 2019; Mabrook & Singer, 2019; Benítez de Gracia & Herrera Damas, 2019). Some questions are not new, as visual journalism has been facing dilemmas since images started being used in news stories. However, the specificities and possibilities of this novel form of content production has led to new challenges which, in summary form, have to do with its particular visual grammar (Dooley, 2017), the place illusion (De la Peña et al., 2010; Domínguez, 2013; Sundar et al., 2017; Van den Broeck et al., 2017) and the empathy (De la Peña et al., 2010; Milk, 2015; Sánchez Laws, 2017).

The 360-degree video productions available so far have left in their wake several controversies since some decisions taken by the journalists conflict with certain ethical norms, especially those related to accuracy, transparency, integrity, minimize the harm or even independence (Hardee, 2016; Sánchez Laws & Utne, 2019; Mabrook & Singer, 2019).

The aim of this proposal is to delve into diverse journalistic experiences trying to understand how professionals build the stories for an evolving environment and experience, and also how they design the narrative to turn the user into a more active participant while watching the video, in spite of confronting some ethical norms. In this work, which belongs to a further study on Ethics and 360-degree videos, it is presented a case study of four social reports that address complex issues: Millions March NYC 12.13.14. (2015), by the digital native media Vice News; Syria’s Silence (2016), by a Vlaamse Radio- en Televisieomroep’ journalist; Nobel’s Nightmare (2016), by Smart News Agency; and Inside the horrors of human trafficking in Mexico (2016), a CGI experience produced by The New York Times. Taking the available literature as a reference, the author opted for a content analysis focused on four main items: treatment and construction of the story for a 360-degree environment, especially if sensitive content; mediated presence and journalist’ influence on the scene to boost the illusion of the “as if” users were there; role of the storyteller; and limits between fiction and non-fiction, even recovering questions arisen in the Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism. The outcomes were confronted to each media code of ethics and to international ones of reference.

Furthermore, several semi-structured interviews were conducted with Immersive Journalism experts and journalists who have produced 360-degree video news stories in order to delve into the dilemmas that these reports present if applied the current, conventional ethical norms. The qualitative approach revealed that some authors justify certain practices as the Immersive Journalism is a result of the hybridization of practices and the influence of game design logics. Limits between fiction and non-fiction become blurred and some claim “exceptions”, just contrary to those who ask for an updating of the existing ethical rules (or specific ones).