Virtual reality (VR) offers publishers a new way to engage with audiences, where viewers are immersed into a situation and encouraged to empathise with the characters and the issues they are watching.

However, Catherine Allen, freelance VR producer for the BBC, explained that journalists must be aware of the ethical issues surrounding the production of this type of content.

"With virtual reality, rather than telling a story, you are putting someone inside a story – and usually involving them in it," she said at the VR & AR World conference in London yesterday (19 October).

"The user is the most vulnerable in comparison with any other screen-based medium."

Many VR projects developed by publishers so far have covered sensitive issues: the Guardian's first VR project, 6x9, let viewers experience solitary confinement, Within's Clouds Over Sidra followed the life of a 12 year-old refugee, and the BBC's Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel took viewers back to the streets of Dublin to witness the 1916 rising that saw the attempted rebellion against British rule in the midst of World War One.

"If you were going to physically take someone into a war zone or refugee camp, you would talk to them and learn about their background to know if they're going to be ok in that situation.

"But when someone puts on a headset, you don't have that relationship with them, and you have no idea of the context in which they are watching that virtual content.

"It doesn't matter if it is 360-degree video or virtual reality – if you are watching material through a headset, viewers can have the illusion they are in that environment."

Allen noted that although reporters have built up a journalistic intuition through their experience, when they are moving into making 360-degree and VR content, they need to question that intuition as it's a fundamentally different medium, involving simulation rather than representation.

She gave five tips for news outlets looking to produce this kind of immersive storytelling.

1. Make a risk analysis

"It's important to make a risk analysis from both an integrity and ethics perspective, and a health and safety perspective," she said.

"Journalists probably won't be used to thinking about the health and safety of someone reading their online article, as they're probably reading it on their phone, just sat at the kitchen table, having their breakfast.

"In the case of VR, this is an important factor to think about."

2) Test your material as you go

"It is quite unlikely your audience will have ever experienced anything that you're making before.

"Test the concept really early on in the production process, put the content in front of them – maybe you could run small focus groups or surveys, just like you would do for product-testing."

3) Co-create with your audience

"This is about making your audience feel comfortable, because when they put that headset on, they are surrendering control for a certain amount of time," Allen explained.

"Ensure people know what to expect, that they feel safe, and know what to do if they don't like it. You could, for example, give a prologue that gives them some context and tells them what they're going into, instead of randomly dropping them into a situation."

The industry is what we make it, and consumer perceptions are still being shapedCatherine Allen, BBC

For example, Allen pointed out that riders of theme-park roller coasters are given a lot of information, safety tips and reassurance before they ride, as they are handing over control, a similar principle to people experiencing virtual reality.

"By any means, I don't think you should stop yourself from creating VR experiences that are potentially distressing, it is just a case of treating it with an ethical framework," she said.

4) Get active feedback from your audience

"Encourage your readers to be active consumers – you want their feedback and for them to hold you accountable.

"With feedback, you can improve your process next time according to how they felt about that experience – it's important to co-create with your audience, working with them to develop the product."

5) Diversify your teams

"Getting diversity into your team whether that's through gender, age, ethnicity, or experience level, will allow you to create a product with integrity," Allen said.

"As VR is often about putting yourself in someone else's shoes or seeing something from someone else's perspective, it is especially important that the team making it is made more aware of their unconscious bias.

"The industry is what we make it, and consumer perceptions are still being shaped. Let's start from a great place right now and create content with integrity, rather than having to work towards it."

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