Remote Immersion: The Power of Not Going There
*Editor’s note: This article is from our archives. It originally appeared in Literary Journalism vol. 14, no. 2 (2021).
Go there. At least once a semester, I write these words on the white board in my journalism classes. The phrase is meant to get my students away from their screens and out into the world. In courses on longform, literary journalism and feature writing, I teach techniques of immersion as a way to gain the poignant insight and detail that make news stories more vivid and meaningful. As I contend with what it means to immerse and to teach immersion in a pandemic, I realize that my many years of cheerleading “going there” perhaps led me to underplay an aspect of my own reporting process that might be particularly valuable now: the power of interviews that are not conducted in person. The power, in short, of not going there.
My main beat, as I like to say, is “love and heartbreak.” I write about mental health and romantic relationships, interweaving my subjects’ stories with research and expert insight in a classic feature reporting blend of narrative and context. My second book, Unrequited, is about women’s experiences of romantic obsession. I conducted a few of the interviews for that book in person. At first this just seemed like a practical matter, as many of my subjects lived far away. Yet even when I offered to meet sources face to face, the personal, taboo nature of the subject matter meant they often preferred the phone.
The conversations were focused and intimate, lasting for hours. I often thought of the wisdom of Terry Gross, the longtime host of the popular American radio show Fresh Air, who extols the benefits of remote interviews. It’s like a Catholic confessional, she told the Longform podcast in 2017. “You don’t see the person you’re confessing to, and they don’t see you. I think that allows a certain comfort that you’re saying something that you’re maybe not comfortable saying.” 
I do want a lot more immersion and face to face interviewing for the new book I’m working on, about how the commitment-skittish and sexually reluctant youth (It’s true! As a demographic, they’re having less sex than their parents did at their age.) of Generation Z experience first love. I’m on sabbatical for the 2020-21 academic year, time I had intended to use to travel in the U.S. and internationally, speaking with young people and using immersion techniques to portray their lives and loves. I’m crestfallen to have my wings clipped. But, like reporters and writers everywhere, I’m finding ways to get the job done.
Like many of us, I find Zoom work meetings frustrating and draining. Online social events send me into existential despair. But I think Zoom is awesome for talking to people about love. It’s not telephone/confessional booth invisible, but the depth of the exchange is just as good or better. I think that may have something to do with the nature of the online world young people have known from the time they were babies, smiling and cooing at their out-of-state grandparents over Facetime. The loneliness of the pandemic, I suspect, is making my interview subjects, their emerging adulthood on hold, reflective and welcoming of new connections, even to a very curious journalist their mother’s age, asking them lots of personal questions about their love lives.
Zoom offers new possibilities for the oxymoronic pursuit of “remote immersion.” I can pick up on facial expressions and body language, steering the conversation accordingly. I asked a young couple, together since middle school, to take me on a tour of their new apartment. I’ve probed my sources about unusual hair dye colors, artwork, bicycle commuting, tattoos, and, yes, book titles, taking cues from the view from my laptop screen. One young woman greeted me holding a huge cardboard box, which contained love notes and cartoon sketches from her expressive high school boyfriend. She held them up to her laptop camera, reminiscing about their three-year relationship.
All this is no substitute for IRL presence. I don’t think Zooming will be enough for the book I hope to write. But I can get a lot done while I’m waiting for the world to open up. Even though I’m not teaching this year, what I’m doing may have some important takeaways for the classroom. What Zoom offers is a kind of starter kit for immersion, a gentle limit on the often bewildering amount of sensory and factual information young reporters have to absorb when they’re witnessing “the moving now.” Zoom offers an introduction to noticing, kind of like the kids’ nature camp lesson of putting a circle of yarn on the ground outside and observing what happens inside. You had no idea so much action could go on in such a small space of forest or field.
There are practical advantages to Zoom interviews, too. Even if the pandemic hadn’t reared its ugly crowned head, I might be using Zoom anyway at this stage of my book. I’m spreading my net wide, interviewing as many people as possible in the search for compelling central characters and situations for each chapter. Zoom makes the process time efficient and inexpensive; I can get a strong sense of my sources’ stories and gauge whether to take the eventual gamble on immersing myself in their lives. Zoom also allows me to incubate the long term journalist-subject relationships necessary for immersive reporting. At the end of the conversation, I often tell my sources that I plan to stay in touch, and I hope to get to meet them. I know that in the meanwhile, their lives will move forward and their perspective on the joys and pain of early relationships will evolve. As they gain distance from the experience, I’ll gain more insight on how first love changes lives over the long term.
Finally, I’ll say that until the world opens up, “remote immersion” may not be an oxymoron after all. The online world is, for many across the globe, the primary setting of the pandemic. It’s where we work, teach, learn, navigate conflict, and nurture social attachments. It’s where we’re living much of our lives. In other words, it’s exactly where journalists need to be spending a lot of their time.
 Terry Gross, interview with Max Linsky. Longform, podcast audio, January 2, 2017. https://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-226-terry-gross.
Lisa A. Phillips is an Associate Professor and chair of the Department of Digital Media and Journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She is the author of Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession (HarperCollins) and Public Radio: Behind the Voices (Perseus). A former public radio reporter, she focuses her journalism and nonfiction writing on issues related to love, heartbreak, and mental health, with bylines in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, Cosmopolitan, Longreads, and Salon, among other outlets. Her scholarly research interests include first person journalism and media ethics. firstname.lastname@example.org