Virtual reality witness: exploring the ethics of mediated presence

The notion of immersive witness underpins much of the exploration of virtual reality (VR) by journalists and humanitarian organisations. Immersive witness links the experience of VR with a moral attitude of responsibility for distant others. In accounts of media witness, the ability of the media to sustain an experience of presence has played an important, albeit often implicit, role linking the spectator spatially and temporally to distant suffering. However, the concept of media witness has to date assumed that the media represent, that news stories and documentaries present to their audiences images and sounds that communicate something of an event. VR, in contrast, seeks to simulate, providing the audience with something of an experience that is linked in various ways to the experiences of others. It is this simulative function that is seen as fundamental to VR’s moral address. This paper explores the moral potential of VR suggesting that while there is much to recommend VR as a platform for humanitarian communication there is an inherent moral risk attached: the risk of improper distance. The United Nation’s VR work serves as a case study for exploring VR’s moral potential and the risk of improper distance.

Nash, K. (2018) “Virtual reality witness: exploring the ethics of mediated presence”. In: Studies in Documentary Film Vol 12 Issue 2, Pp. 119—131, DOI


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