One of the first works I read by Ted Conover, the country’s reigning master of immersion reporting, was “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,” his 2000 book chronicling 10 months he spent guarding a maximum-security prison. That’s probably why I had imagined him as steely and reserved. It turns out he’s warm and unassuming, and when we spoke in January, he started out by asking me questions.
Immersion research makes it harder to think of any group of people simplistically. Our brains are full of shorthand versions of other people, and immersion reporting gives you access to the nuance that turns a stereotype into a real person.
That disarming style has no doubt come in handy over the more than three decades Conover has spent getting enmeshed in regular people’s lives, telling the nuanced stories that can only come from deep observation. His first book, “Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes,” which grew out of his anthropology thesis at Amherst College and was published in 1984, described his year hopping freight trains. Since then, he’s written books based on months spent with undocumented Mexican workers and the wealthy residents of Aspen. More recently, he went undercover as a federal meat inspector for Harper’s. He also teaches at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
When an editor at the University of Chicago Press suggested that Conover write a guide for journalists who want to follow in his footsteps, he decided to take her up on it. In “Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep,” which came out in October, Conover draws on his own experiences and those of other prominent writers to break down the process of immersion reporting, from finding an idea to structuring the narrative. I asked him to share his some of his insights, which have been condensed below:
What was the spark for your career — what made you want to ride the rails and write about it? And what about that trip was so rewarding that you decided to do it for the next 30 years?
There are at least a couple of parts to it. The first is a desire to see things myself, without intermediaries—to learn by experience. Higher education can separate you from people who don’t have access to it. Projects like these can help close the distance.
Also, for a long time – I’d say ever since I was bused under a court desegregation order to a high school across town – I’ve thought about how different my life would have been if had I grown up in a different neighborhood, or been born to parents of a different social class or ethnicity or nationality. In other words, I’ve wondered about identity. So for me these immersions into different lives are partly identity experiments. They teach me a little bit about how the world looks from different angles and test my different capacities. I get to live in a new way for a while, take a journey that stretches my mind and my idea of myself. And because reporters don’t often enter these worlds deeply, there’s a good chance of coming away with a fresh story. I really can’t imagine anything I would rather be doing.
What’s your advice for finding a good subject for immersion reporting? How can reporters decide which stories warrant the treatment?
The subject needs to be important to justify spending lots of time on it, and often those have to do with social problems. Or maybe it’s an original kind of journey, like Matthew Powers’ “Mississippi Drift,” about floating down the river with punk anarchists. It’s not a pressing public issue, but it’s a fascinating story about marginal young people reenacting an American myth, and the personal story of a writer joining up with a group like that is automatically interesting. It’s the same with Susan Orlean’s classic story “The American Male at Age 10.” That began with an assignment to write about child actor Macaulay Culkin, and she thought, That would be boring, and what would be interesting instead? Above all, that’s the key test: What would you really like to learn about? Who would you like to get to know? What life would you like to visit? Because this is going to need to occupy your mind for a long time. Also, what experience would you like to have that can connect you in some way to the zeitgeist, to what’s happening out there now?
When you spend so much time with subjects, the lines can get blurry. You can start to develop friendships, and you witness intimate moments. As you point out in the book, there’s no Institutional Review Board to ensure ethical reporting (for good reason), as there is in academia. How do you negotiate those gray areas while reporting?
This comes up in every single project. What do you do if they ask you for money? If you realize they didn’t tell you the whole story? If they start confiding in ways that suggest they’ve forgotten why you’re there? The best way I know to deal with that is to periodically remind people why you’re there. Take out your notebook, write down what they just said and ask if it’s OK to quote them. Now and then say, “Can we talk for 10 minutes about this?” and take out your voice recorder for a more formal interview. Or you can bring up your timetable. If you refer to your own process, it reminds them that it’s not just a friendly conversation. I also find that it helps to explain out loud what I’m after and what I’m doing. For example, “Writing like this needs scenes. If I could go with you to that appointment, it would be very valuable for me.” You have the option of enlisting them as collaborators in making something.
Deception is the nature of undercover reporting, and as a reporter you need to own that deception. You need to realize that good readers are going to be picturing you deceiving people and making up their own minds about whether it was worth it.
Often the best subjects for immersion work are people for whom you feel sympathy, so becoming close and even sometimes becoming their champion doesn’t cause a problem. But it doesn’t have to be like that: It can also work when a writer has to negotiate his own dismay at the behavior of his subjects, like Bill Buford in “Among the Thugs” [about soccer hooligans]. It makes sense to discuss these things up front. When I arrived in Iowa to write about a veterinarian, he realized I might see controversial practices. I told him, “Every day, we should just talk about what I’ve seen, and if I have any reservations you can tell me why you did something a certain way, and if you decide I’m the wrong guy, just tell me.” Starting an immersion project is beginning a relationship, and like other relationships, it can benefit from dialogue.
I think if you are writing about people who are poor and there are ways you can help that will not distort your story, you should consider them—Rebecca Skloot and Alex Kotlowitz are good on this subject. I’ve offered rides and meals and tobacco, but I’ve never loaned or given money. I’ve given antibiotics that I was carrying to a Kenyan truck driver who needed them.
In immersion reporting, you’re embedding deeply in people’s lives. How do you secure that kind of access?
Partway through the freight-hopping for “Rolling Nowhere,” I started meeting Mexicans going north – that gave me the idea for my second book, “Coyotes.” But how to meet them? Sometimes you find an intermediary. A farmworker group in Arizona that organized undocumented workers said I could visit. I volunteered to teach English classes for them and met a ton of people I then traveled with over a year.
Other cases are different. I wanted to write about a mega-city like Lagos for my book “The Routes of Man” but didn’t know a soul in Nigeria. Then I remembered I had bought life insurance from a Nigerian immigrant in the Bronx, where I live. Years later, he still remembered me — his cousin ended up picking me up from the Lagos airport and let me stay in his house. If you’re interested in a topic, let people know — we’re all connected in so many ways.
Yes, but cautiously. Not a lot of lasting relationships start with one party saying, “I’m going to need this and this from you, and lots of your time!” We are guests in other people’s worlds and need to act that way. Usually in journalism you don’t declare all your interests upfront. For one thing, you don’t know all of them, and for another, it’s a gradual process. It’s a sort of “unpeeling,” where you get to know people, you ask them things, you tell them about yourself. You explain in general terms what you’re after, and as the relationship develops and you get your footing, you explain in more specific terms. I don’t think it’s as much about making a preliminary declaration as it is about building and nurturing a relationship.
How do you record or take notes when you’re following subjects through their lives for days, months, years? How do you organize all that material when you sit down to write?
My personal method is to keep a small spiral notebook, usually in the back pocket of my jeans or front pocket of my shirt. I take notes throughout the day about quotes, people’s names, ages, numbers, jokes — things I might forget. I also have my smartphone handy, because photos are notes too. Then when I have a break, often at the end of the day, I will type them out and expand on the thoughts or observations. I like to have a body of notes I can search on the computer, but I want to be present for everything that’s happening around me and not take notes all day long. At the end, I go back and boldface certain notes, or print them out and use a highlighter. Sometimes I’ll copy and paste notes into the thing I’m writing. I try to plan the order of things before I start writing, and I often play with that along the way. I usually write narrative, and in narrative the sequence is everything.
Generally, what’s been the most challenging thing for you about doing this work? Specifically, what was the hardest moment?
Loneliness is one of the hardest things. Often this kind of reporting is best done alone, but I don’t always like being alone. It’s hard to eat alone all the time.
The deeper you get, the more vulnerable you are. One of the worst moments was with “Newjack,” when I got into a verbal altercation with an inmate and ended up getting punched through the bars by a different one. It was humiliating more than anything else, because I’d lost my temper and that precipitated the thing. It filled me with anger, not just at those two guys, but at the mass of prisoners. I thought for the first time ever, these are bad people. It wasn’t until days after that I realized that, much more than getting slugged, the wound I suffered was suddenly hating people I didn’t know. It would never have happened if I wasn’t so immersed. It was an insight into the lives of officers who really have to struggle not to dismiss a group of people as a result of a bad experience.
You call undercover reporting “the nuclear arrow in the writer’s quiver.” You’ve reported incognito as a prison guard and as a federal meat inspector. In your mind, when is going undercover justified, and what are your key rules for doing it ethically?
The subject needs to be really important, and you must have an expectation that you’ll learn things undercover you couldn’t learn any other way. Deception is the nature of undercover reporting, and as a reporter you need to own that deception. You need to realize that good readers are going to be picturing you deceiving people and making up their own minds about whether it was worth it.
One of my personal guidelines for undercover reporting is: Don’t actively lie. Don’t make up a false backstory to explain why you’re there or to get a job. I think you can avoid it in practically every case by not answering questions or saying you don’t want to talk about it. Some people will say you’re being deceptive simply by putting on a prison guard uniform or federal meat inspector uniform. To a degree, they’re right. On the other hand, I’m not pretending to do the job – I’m actually doing it.
I think you should never surreptitiously enter a therapeutic space, like a 12-step group. And you should never enter into an intimate relationship with someone while doing this. You should not do things that would strike the normal you as unethical, because it’s not like you get a pass on ethical behavior just because you’re undercover.
You’re aware of Shane Bauer’s piece for Mother Jones, in which he did something similar to “Newjack” by working undercover as a guard in a private prison. It famously came out after the article was published that the magazine spent some $350,000 to produce it and made about $5,000. That may be exaggerated for effect, but it speaks to the precariousness of the business model for immersion reporting. At the same time, reporters are increasingly asked to do more with less. What do you say to those who claim immersion reporting isn’t worth it in this time of short attention spans and dwindling profits for news outlets? And how have you managed to sustain yourself with it?
Finding somebody to sponsor this work the way Mother Jones sponsored Shane, a staff writer, is very difficult. As a freelancer, I got a lot of help with expenses from Harper’s for my undercover piece about meat inspection. For my books “Coyotes,” “Whiteout” and “The Routes of Man,” I had advances from book publishers, and for “The Routes of Man” I also had a Guggenheim Fellowship. My research for “Newjack,” “Whiteout” and the Harper’s story also involved working various jobs for which I was paid salaries. Most immersion writing is done by freelancers who creatively cobble together an income from various sources. Finding the time and money is not easy. That said, I do think it’s one way a young journalist who is starting out or between jobs can distinguish herself and make a real contribution.
[Conover and Bauer are scheduled to have a public conversation at New York University tomorrow, Feb. 8.]
You write, “Immersion writing has huge potential for sowing empathy in the world.” Why is that? And what role do you see for it in today’s politically divided landscape, when many people can’t even agree on the facts?
Immersion research makes it harder to think of any group of people simplistically. Our brains are full of shorthand versions of other people, and immersion reporting gives you access to the nuance that turns a stereotype into a real person. I think that in this era of Trump and division, people of goodwill care about actual facts and actual others. Even if we didn’t vote for a particular candidate, it behooves of us as citizens to have an informed view of others who did. A journalist who does this kind of reporting gets access to something better than the cardboard version. In an epigraph to my book, I quote lines by Richard Wilbur: “Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you/And whom, it is said, you are so unlike.” I think that’s a good democratic model and journalistic model.
So in this “era of Trump and division,” do you plan to go out again and immerse yourself into a world that is “unlike you”? It seems like a particularly relevant time for your kind of reporting.
Yes, to a lot of my friends, the people who voted for Trump are “the other.” There’s a chasm there that could use some bridging—it’s a clear opportunity for immersion writers. One project I’m eyeing would take me in that direction. Another is completely different.