Immersive journalism in the form of virtual reality (VR) headsets and 360°-video is becoming more mainstream and is much touted for inducing greater "presence" than traditional text. But, does this presence influence psychological outcomes of reading news, such as memory for story content, perceptions of credibility, and empathy felt toward story characters? We propose that two key technological affordances of VR (modality and interactivity) are responsible for triggering three presence-related cognitive heuristics (being-there, interaction, and realism), which influence news readers' memory and their perceptions of credibility, empathy, and story-sharing intentions. We report a 3 (storytelling medium: VR vs. 360°-video vs. Text) × 2 (story: "The displaced" and "The click effect") mixed-factorial experiment, in which participants (N = 129) experienced two New York Times stories (that differed in their emotional intensity) using one of the three mediums (VR, 360°-video, Text). Participants who experienced the stories using VR and 360°-video outperformed those who read the same stories using text with pictures, not only on such presence-related outcomes as being-there, interaction, and realism, but also on perceived source credibility, story-sharing intention, and feelings of empathy. Moreover, we found that senses of being-there, interaction, and realism mediated the relationship between storytelling medium and reader perceptions of credibility, story recall, and story-sharing intention. These findings have theoretical implications for the psychology of virtual reality, and practical applications for immersive journalism in particular and interactive media in general.
Keywords: MAIN model; immersive journalism; presence; virtual reality.