Immersion journalism requires writers to throw themselves into the thick of things, spending months and even years with their subjects. (Think Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, or more recently, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.) It’s a genre not without criticism—some fret about lost objectivity, while others dismiss it as “stunt” journalism—but its unique merits shouldn’t be overlooked at a time when deflated budgets increasingly deny writers opportunities to do deep reporting.

Almost Human by Lee GutkindFor one, the story that emerges is often different than the one a writer sets out to find. Lee Gutkind, founding editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction and a contemporary master of immersion journalism, tells Fresno Famous about working on his latest book, Almost Human: Making Robots Think.

“Almost all of the cutting-edge research, software writing, and engineering is being done by people, mostly men, and a few women, under 25 years of age. I was stunned by that,” Gutkind says to the Fresno Bee-owned website. “I thought I was going to go meet all these people who look like me, with gray hair. You know, Einstein-like characters….”

You might go into an immersion with a particular idea, Gutkind explains, but after a few months, you have a new one—or a variation on the original. “If you spend another year or two, your idea sophisticates and focuses even more,” he says.

It’s not to say that all writers ought to (or can) adopt an immersion model, but Gutkind’s statement does nudge at a dilemma haunting the general journalistic pursuit of objectivity in an era of quashed resources:

If a beleaguered writer, strapped for time or cash or both, “parachutes” in on a story and spends only limited time with the subject (be it person, place, or thing), then the window for maturing comprehension slams shut. Whether we’re talking about jumping directly into the fray or reporting from the sidelines, without time to make discoveries, vet assumptions, and evolve perceptions, isn’t a writer destined to deliver a story closer to what he or she expected to find in the first place? And isn’t that its own kind of subjective slant, in the end?

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