Academic journal article Teaching Journalism & Mass Communication

Cracking a Closed Culture as an Immersion Journalist

Academic journal article Teaching Journalism & Mass Communication

Cracking a Closed Culture as an Immersion Journalist

Article excerpt

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One of the greatest challenges in writing memoirs is finding ways to get outside our own personal experiences, searching for a perch where writers can view some of their closest friends, relatives and loved ones as if they were strangers. In order to make someone care about those experiences, Mom, Dad and Grandma must be introduced and recreated from scratch. But when telling stories of a culture or a world that is more unknown and outside the breadth of personal experience, the challenge is reversed. Our own lives are the worlds that are spread open to us, the landscapes in which we walk around freely every day, often missing all of the intricacies and details an outsider would notice. But when writers step into a world that is by nature closed to them, a society they are not a part of, a group that looks at them with a skeptical eye or won't even give them a word, the greatest challenge becomes how to possibly find a way inside.

Intrepid journalists or academics could read dozens of books and articles about the culture of 21st Century whale hunters, scour page upon page of doctors' and therapists' reports on recovering alcoholics in New Orleans or conduct scores of one-on-one interviews with lion tamers and still know very little about the essential truths of their subjects' lives. They would be qualified, perhaps, to write a research paper. But they would have almost none of the information needed to unveil the intimate details of what it feels like to be out on a skiff in the Arctic Ocean, to feel the pain of walking past a bar on Bourbon Street or know the terror of staring straight into the eyes of a pacing, hungry lion. No, the only way to write about these people is by stepping into their lives as fully as possible and writing from the inside-while still using the eyes of an outsider as the viewing lens. Therein lies the most critical challenge for a literary journalist writing about "the other." Over the course of the history of literary journalism, the concept of "immersion" has evolved from the earliest pieces of immersion-style or saturation journalism by Stephen Crane, Abraham Cahan, Hutchins Hapgood and others, including Jack London in The People of the Abyss. Over the past century, the perspective of the immersion journalist has developed and matured to the point where the writer's academic and journalistic distance from the subject-even while immersed in that subject-is now one of the most important traits in terms of assessing a piece's value as true literary journalism. This is true especially in a 21st Century world where opinion pieces, commentary and memoir are easy to come by in the onslaught of information-making a truly analytical and distanced piece of immersion even more valuable. Also, as mainstream media have become more omnipresent and readers more skeptical in the 21st Century, it has become more important that an immersion journalist be as transparent and open as possible about his purpose-and the literature produced must be evaluated with that in mind.

In my professional research, I have used the tactics of immersion journalism in a variety of ways, facing a variety of challenges. As a reporter for The Associated Press, I covered a beat for years where I dealt with law enforcement in Philadelphia, the fifth-largest city in the United States. Police officers and detectives are famously closed cultures, with their own language, codes and rules-and they distrust outsiders. Covering those issues meant spending lengthy amounts of time with officers, on the beat, in the courtroom and off the job, to learn their world. It meant keeping my grounding as a journalist whose primary interest was in the story, but also making sure that I delved deeper into their lives, their worlds and their mind-sets to find out what made them tick, to find out how things really worked. The challenge here, though, was that this wasn't full-time immersion but bits and pieces over days, weeks and months. …

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