behind the news

Immersion journalists discuss their craft

And like in their work, they do so by showing, not telling
October 9, 2013

The New Yorker Festival featured a four-panelist discussion called “Immersion Journalism” on Saturday, which was decidedly barren of one key element: a straightforward explanation of “immersion journalism.” Editor David Remnick, who moderated the discussion, playfully characterized the term as “a phrase I think was made up yesterday” and “stories you spend more than 15 minutes on.” But we all know that immersion journalism was not invented in The New Yorker‘s break room earlier this month.

Immersion journalism is about showing, not telling. Talking about “immersion journalism” rather than relaying stories of its execution equates to writing about the framework of Colombian drug trafficking rather than writing the narrative of one specific drug cartel–and we all know what makes a better story. Panelists Raffi Khatchadourian, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, George Packer, and Sarah Stillman–without attempting to flatten immersion journalism into a box–provided great insight into its philosophy and practice. As immersion journalism is about directly and intimately engaging with its subject, the panelists told personal stories of their immersive journalistic experiences without some stolid, distancing interpretation.

Raffi Khatchadourian, a staff writer at The New Yorker, was a famously meticulous factchecker at the magazine. But his first piece there, “Azzam the American,” was nominated for a National Magazine Award in profile writing. The story relayed the tale of an America-grown Al Qaeda terrorist from California. But his most interesting anecdote at the panel illustrated his journalistic pursuit of Julian Assange–before the WikiLeaks mastermind’s widespread notoriety–to a coffee shop in Iceland. Khatchadourian’s favorite example of immersion journalism can be in seen in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Though it’s a work of fiction, Khatchadourian argued that the protagonist’s immersion experience mirrored journalists’ initial blunders and ideals. Falling into a world entirely unlike his own, the main character experiences a series of revelations and slip-ups as he attempts to create an anthropology and a narrative of the people of the future.

As a journalist who forged strong and lasting connections with her sources, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc provided insight into the emotional aspect of immersion journalism. Her book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, is the product of 11 years of reporting on one disadvantaged family. She noted that many of the residents she followed had funny ideas about what journalists wanted from sources: “Don’t you want to interview the girl who has the most babies by the most different guys?” After assembling her notes, LeBlanc avoided contact with her sources during writing. “They stop being characters,” she explained. Many people she interviewed had no interest in reading the book–or simply could not read–except for her sources in prison, who wanted to keep up with their loved ones’ lives.

George Packer has been a staff writer since 2003 and is a political journalist (Khatchadourian used to factcheck him!). Packer’s books probe deep into the nature of American democracy and the Iraq war. Most of his stories, he explained, “begin with something that makes me angry.” Packer’s involvement in Iraq with victims of trauma prompted Remnick to ask him a loaded, complex question all journalists wrestle with: “You have two brains. One says, ‘This is horrible and the ramifications are awful.’ The other side, I’m afraid to say, says, ‘This is good stuff.’ How do you cope?” Packer responded, in essence, that he just goes ahead and writes the story. “The two overlap in ways that allow you to live with yourself,” he said. “I never imagine how it’s gonna read on a page in the middle of an interview. It’s like thinking too hard during sex–it doesn’t help. What helps is feeling that connection.”

Finally, Sarah Stillman, a mere 26, brought a fresh perspective to the panel of older journalists. She’s a staff writer at The New Yorker and has already reported in Iraq; but perhaps her most interesting anecdotes came out of her piece, “The Throwaways,” which follows young drug informants who are put at risk by the police. When asked how she chooses subjects for stories, Stillman said, “You want to find the stories that plug into deeper, systematic issues . . . the intersection between interpersonal and traumatic experiences and structural issues.”

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I came away from the panel with a rich portrait of the engrossing and vivid nature of the trade. The multifaceted character of immersion journalism may be captured best in one of Packer’s anecdotes. Once, when interviewing a hesitant source who kindly provided hospitality, Packer thanked the man for letting him into his life because he “knew that he did not suffer fools.” The man wrote back in a fury, berating Packer for trying to “pin him down and formulate him with a cliche like ‘don’t suffer fools.'” The task at hand for immersion journalists is to transcend banality. In Packer’s telling, his source wanted his life to speak for itself with Packer as the medium. Immersion journalism attempts to avoid objectifying its subject–and the New Yorker panel showed, not told, me as much by forsaking explanations in favor of stories.

Cecilia D'Anastasio is a CJR intern