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Ted Conover Gives Talk at UCI Discussing Immersion Journalism

By Sharmin Shanur and Eliza Partika

Journalist Ted Conover visited UCI last Thursday, Jan. 25 in an effort to help students gain insight into the world of a literary journalist.

Conover read excerpts from his books “Rolling Nowhere,” “Newjack: Guard Sing Sing,” and “Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep,” three of his six best-selling books. He has also written for numerous magazines, including “The New Yorker,” “The Atlantic” and “Vanity Fair.”  Conover’s stories have centered on the lives of Mexican migrants, prison inmates, African truckers in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, and slaughterhouse employees. Instead of simply reporting on these populations, Conover plunges head-first into his subjects’ lives to become one of them, all in order to preserve the accuracy and legitimacy of his portrayals.

Conover stated that one of the most amazing aspects of immersive journalism is that it allows one to “put oneself in unfamiliar situations” and “emulate or model a democratic discourse.”

To Conover, journalism is not about being comfortable with oneself; rather, it is an opportunity to educate others about the lives of the forgotten and start conversations about topics no one chooses talk about.

During the question-and-answer portion, one student asked Conover how he was able to remember such exchanges with other individuals. Conover responded by saying that he would “run to the bathroom, turn [his] back, and scribble into a notebook immediately.”

Conover goes beyond simple dialogues for his pieces, giving more in-depth descriptions of the environment and the mindsets of individuals. Conover dedicates months or even years trying to get to know his subjects on a more intimate level.

He noted during the discussion that “the long period of time is what allowed [him] to get to know people well and this changes regular news or journalism into something else, something [he] think[s] is deeper, something that seems more like fiction, like a story with characters, and a problem.”

Working in immersion journalism often has Conover going undercover to get a story. On Thursday’s event, Conover detailed his experience getting hired as a prison guard.

However, Conover stressed that empathy towards subjects can come with unintended consequences.

“It can be isolating and emotionally draining, so you often have to think of your experience as material, not as your life.”

Conover also addressed recent claims by the general public that the field of journalism is declining. He argued that immersive journalism does not need to change because it inherently exists to fight sectarianism.

“[It] is taking initiative to learn beyond others….it is against tribalism.”