Apr 26, 2007

Living it: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Immersion Journalism

As a reporter I was lucky to get to spend more than a day to report and write an article. That’s why I can’t imagine spending 12 years on a one project as Adrian Nicole LeBlanc did in writing Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, the award-winning narrative nonfiction book about the lives of two Puerto Rican girls who grew up in the impoverished, drug-dealing world of the Bronx.

LeBlanc gave a speech to University of Oregon journalism students recently called “Journalism for the Long Haul,” an apt topic for a journalist well known for her time-intensive research methods.

To understand the lives of her subjects, she essentially lived right alongside them. During the day she was an editor of Seventeen magazine, but in the evening she hung out with her subjects in the Tremont Avenue ghetto. She sometimes even slept overnight at their apartments, changing into her work clothes the next morning in the lobby bathroom of her posh downtown New York City office building.

“Immersion journalism is journalism with the incredible luxury of time,” LeBlanc explained. “I had time to spare. I could spend as much time as needed.”

LeBlanc didn’t go to a journalism school so she didn’t know how to launch into the reporting. She just decided to visit the neighborhood and introduced herself to people on the street, saying, “Hi, I’m Adrian. I’m a journalist and I want to write about your life.”

She returned, day after day with her notebook and audio recorder and documented their lives.

These anthropological techniques aren’t usually taught in journalism school. Instead we’ve learned to gather information by holding question-and-answer interviews, often by phone to save time.

But while we save time, we lose so much more.

We aren’t privy to intimate details of our subjects’ lives. We don’t know their daily routines. And we often aren’t trusted with the real story. As a result, we tend to write flat lifeless accounts.

“For me reporting makes (life) happen in Technicolor,” LeBlanc said. “If you love it and you can figure out how to make it work (financially), there’s nothing like it.”

Since listening to Adrian, I’ve launched my own immersion-reporting project into the subculture of roller derby. I followed LeBlanc's lead. I went to the roller rink and said, "Hi I'm Katie. I'm a journalist and I want to write about roller derby."

In the past week and a half, I’ve spent 18 hours with the Emerald City Roller Girls. I’m just beginning to understand the team’s dynamics, practice routines, and individual players’ motivations and dreams. Already I know so much more than what I would from basic interviewing, but even more revealing is how much I realize I don’t yet know.

It’ll take time, but I’m looking forward to being there to watch their stories unfold.

To read an interview with LeBlanc by Michael Werner visit:

Etude, the University of Oregon's literary nonfiction online magazine

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