Immersive technologies, another’s shoes, and human rights attitudes

Media through which we access both the daily news and in-depth information on broader issues are becoming more diverse and accessible. Reading news articles, watching documentaries on YouTube and Netflix, visiting virtual reality (VR) installations or simply putting on a mobile VR headset to watch a 360-degree video – these are some of the options at our disposal, some traditional and more established, some only emerging. Nevertheless, with such a high saturation with information from all directions, editors and producers are fighting for our attention while striving to be as effective in their messages as possible.

One branch of journalism whose aim is exactly to engage their users as if they were at the scene is immersive journalism. Today, this mostly entails 360-degree videos that can be watched on-screen on YouTube or in a head mounted mobile VR display. Despite the expected advantages of the technological immersiveness offered by a VR display that completely covers your field of view and enables you to naturally survey the content by moving your head, it is unclear whether this way of consumption has a higher effect on your own attitudes and behaviour.

This study aimed at addressing the question of how immersive journalism, and VR in particular, affect your attitudes when compared to reading an article. We used The Guardian’s digital 360-video titled The Sea Prayer. It consists of a panoramic view that is being drawn as the story progresses, while the narrator guides you through an escalation of conflict and finally becoming a refugee. Participants were divided in three groups to which the story was presented in three ways – the first group read an article that contained a transcript and captured visuals from the video; the second watched the original video on YouTube where they could click-and-drag to look around the panorama; and finally the third group watched the same video but in mobile VR.

Participants’ human rights attitudes were measured both before and after being exposed to the story to track whether and what kind of effect the treatments would have. Additionally, we looked into how one’s subjective involvement in the content influenced their change in attitudes.

We found no changes in human rights attitudes in the group that read the article version. On the other hand, we found a positive change in the human rights attitudes with those who were exposed to the story through immersive journalism – a 360-degree video either on-screen or in mobile VR, with the effects being the strongest in VR. Finally, those who viewed immersive journalism on average reported being more involved, while higher involvement indicated slightly higher attitudinal change.

This study shows support for the touted promise of using VR for building compassion. Immersive journalism and its consumption are still somewhat scarce, but with the technology advancement, rising affordability, and the upcoming easier production of virtual worlds, we are still to understand what lies ahead for VR – and how it might change how we perceive one another.

“Empathy machine”: how virtual reality affects human rights attitudes

Mila Bujić

Mikko Salminen

Joseph Macey

Juho Hamari

Reference: Bujić, M., Salminen, M., Macey, J., & Hamari, J. (2020). “Empathy machine”: how virtual reality affects human rights attitudes. Internet Research. Ahead-of-print, doi: 10.1108/INTR-07-2019-0306.

See the paper for full details:





This study aims to investigate how media content consumed through immersive technology may evoke changes in human rights attitudes. It has been proposed that our inability to empathize with others could be overcome by stepping into another’s shoes. “Immersive journalism” has been postulated as being able to place us into the shoes of those whose feelings and experiences are distant to us. While virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree news videos have become widely available, it remains unclear how the consumption of content through immersive journalism affects users’ attitudes.


Utilizing a between-subject laboratory-controlled experiment (N = 87) this study examined participant scores on the Human Rights Questionnaire before and after consuming 360-degree video immersive journalism content via VR (n = 31), 2D (n = 29), and Article (n = 27) formats. Collected data were analysed using statistical inference.


Results indicate that immersive journalism can elicit a positive attitudinal change in users, unlike an Article, with mobile VR having a more prominent effect than a 2D screen. Furthermore, this change is more strongly affected by users’ higher Involvement in the content.


These findings are relevant for grasping the distinct effects novel and recently popularized technologies and media have on attitudinal change, as well as inform the current debate on the value of VR as “empathy machines”.

Image is a screenshot from The Sea Prayer by The Guardian. The full video is available at
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