MDJ Hosts VR-Based Training to Prepare Student Journalists for Uncertain Situations

Kelsey Paulus, '22

Students in the School of Media and Journalism recently participated in a virtual reality training session that focused on safety tactics to use when reporting on potentially dangerous news events.

Through a research grant provided by the College of Communication and Information, the United Kingdom-based company Headset was invited to complete this training on March 13, 2022, at Kent State. Headset uses virtual reality to train professional journalists for situations they may be placed in — particularly situations that may trigger traumatic reactions or may be a threat to their safety.

Associate Professor Gretchen Hoak, Ph.D., conducts research that focuses on this topic of journalists’ safety. She studies areas such as depression, burnout and traumatic stress, and says the current culture surrounding journalism doesn’t leave much room for emotional reactions from workers.

“Ideally, a newsroom would be a place where it is acceptable and understandable that certain stories are going to impact journalists in a certain way, and they should be allowed the space, the training and the resources to be able to work through that without fear of losing their jobs,” Hoak said.

This training session — through virtual reality — placed students at an anti-COVID lockdown/anti-mask rally that gets out of hand. The person undergoing the training is faced with people who are not fond of the press, burning buildings and throwing bottles. The situation evolves to include an instance in which their “partner,” simulated in the session, is attacked by a protest-goer.

Journalism major Ben Pagani, ’22, was one of the six students who attended the training. From a previous job at 21 WFJM in Youngstown, Pagani came into the training with some experience covering traumatic stories. They said the training was extremely beneficial and taught them a few tactics that they will be able to use in their future journalism career.

“I’m not the craziest VR person in the world, but I think it’s very hard to simulate those kinds of events without actually doing them,” Pagani said. “I think for the purposes of teaching journalists to combat dangerous situations, also to openly discuss trauma that can be associated with working in the news industry, then this was a great way to do it.”

As part of her research, Hoak interviewed the six participants before and after the training about their perceptions of safety in the news field and their vulnerability to physical or psychological harm from stories they could be assigned to cover. She was able to observe the students and their real-time reactions to what they were experiencing in the training simulation.

“As a journalism educator, we want to make sure we’re preparing our students the best that we can for the world that they’re entering, and that’s part of the world right now,” Hoak said. “If we can, again, make them more resilient to that – maybe give them some tools to be able to work under those conditions – they’re better journalists, they stay longer, they contribute in a way that they’re hoping to do when they graduate.”

Hoak and other faculty in the School of Media and Journalism are currently planning ways to be able to bring Headset back to Kent State to complete a similar training. They are also exploring ways to offer it to neighboring journalism schools and local journalists.

“I’m glad that I’ve had the experiences I’ve had,” Pagani said. “I’m glad that I have had an opportunity like the VR training because it makes me a more well-rounded and better-prepared journalist.”

POSTED: Sunday, May 15, 2022 - 12:41pm