Module JG190

Immersion Journalism

Module author

Leon Dash

University of Illinois

Learning objectives After studying this module, you will be able to:
  • Define immersion journalism and explain this journalistic genre;
  • Give an overview of the historic development of the genre, including key persons who established this genre;
  • Reflect this genre critically und explain the positive and negative aspects of immersion journalism.
Study point 1
Reading extract Immersion Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Immersion Journalism is important zu know

Immersion Journalism's methodology is to engage the reader's emotion and imagination using literary techniques to convey a story whose focus is on the experience, not the writer. The purpose of any immersion journalist is to determine the essence of "what it feels like," not "what occurred". As such, the journalist will choose a subject that forces a personal change in behavior, i.e. something he/she wouldn't normally do and likely to produce great emotions. Then he/she would wholly research the subject or situation, taking as much time as necessary to develop the story accurately to provide the reader with a better understanding of all the emotive properties and nuances of a certain event as if the experience was their own.

For example, if an immersion journalist is writing a story about being handicapped, he/she would take on the lifestyle of, say, someone who is wheelchair bound for a period of time in order to experience their perspectives and emotions as a handicapped person. This is one particularly safe example. Other assignments are not always limited to harmless research; they could also be something far more dangerous, like serving as a prison guard or joining a gang. In some cases, it could be illegal, such as entrenching oneself among drug dealers or crossing the border with immigrants. This immersion would allow the journalist to tap into the internal conflict and truth of the subject sanctioning a greater sense of authenticity.

In order to keep the attention and the faith of the reader, certain elements must be employed in this style of writing. They are: in-depth, first person research; inclusion of intimate details and emotion; literary techniques such as characterizations and structuring for dramatic effect; and participating in the story while also presenting observations from the events.

The narratives in immersion writing are introspective with great attention to the writer's personal estimation of what has been learned and what can be learned from the experience. It is no surprise then that immersion journalism includes any type of memoir, travel journals, or journalistic pieces in which the writer is as inextricably linked to the story as the subject is. Ultimately, the goal is to transcend the banal and to put life on display without objectifying the subject. 

In comparison with "everyday" journalism, the primary difference is the method that is used to develop the story. While both types of journalism perform interviews and provide facts, immersion journalists report from experience and write with a narrative style structured for dramatic effect. In this style of writing, the reader's imagination becomes actively engaged and the reader quickly becomes a participant in the events and dialogue shared in the text.

As a method of research, it sacrifices objectivity in order to adequately convey intimacy and emotion relative to the subject. This allowance for subjectivity defies conventions, as journalists have learned to present the facts without bias, but in immersion journalism, the writer has a voice for the first time. Also, unlike traditional journalism, immersion journalism provides flexible deadlines to allow for the natural development of their story to occur.

On the subject of time, this form of journalism has existed for over a century and continues to gain favor and popularity. Given that its methodology is founded in expressing emotion, it is no surprise that the first person to pioneer immersion journalism was a woman. Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, writing under the nom de plume of Nellie Bly, and with the intent of exposing abuse on female inmates, admitted herself to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island was the first person to utilize immersion journalism for the purpose of exposure. The series that emerged from her experience, "Ten Days in a Mad-House," was published in New York World in 1887.

She may have been the first but she was certainly not the last. Other instances of immersion journalism can be found in movies and television where characters as reporters became integral parts of the story, but one of the most well-known instances of this style of writing can be found in Truman Capote's nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood. This true story turned novel turned blockbuster hit movie details the slaying of a small town Kansas family and reports on the interactions of the many people involved in the tragic event, including the victims, the murderers, neighbors, relations, and lawmen. Additionally, other great examples of immersion journalism include the documentary Supersize Me, the book Friday Night Lights, and the public broadcasting series Frontline.

These examples and their successes suggest that immersion journalism is becoming more widely adopted and accepted. Previously, journalists have been considered cold and uncaring when reporting on news and current events, but this style of writing allows for the reader and writer to bridge a gap that normally wouldn't exist.

With its ability to present stories in ways that are true with reality, it exposes how people live, work, and exist, which makes this type of journalism interesting and useful.

Immersion journalism allows people to understand each other, our worlds, our cultures, from the inside out, and acknowledges the fact that all people have the right to be different and to pursue their own personal developments. To be able to establish a connection with one another, this is the human condition, and immersion journalism is the path that allows us to trust one another again.