Chronicling his stint as a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat inspector, journalist Ted Conover spoke on Tuesday about his experiences immersing himself in the topics he writes about.
At a Morse College master’s tea on Tuesday afternoon, Conover — a non-fiction writer and participatory journalist — spoke to an audience of roughly 40 students and faculty members about how he temporarily adopts new identities and professions in order to present truthful experiences through his writing. In his most recent long-form story, Conover spent two months as a USDA meat inspector in order to present an account of the everyday lives of slaughterhouse workers.
“I don’t make the decision to try to sneak into another world lightly, but I think there are some very important places in American life from which the public is excluded,” Conover said. “The public has a strong interest in what goes on there, but it’s very difficult to obtain if you announce yourself as a writer or journalist.”
When asked by Morse College Master Amy Hungerford to describe the planning of his slaughterhouse piece, Conover said he was looking for a way to inconspicuously enter a slaughterhouse — and that he applied for the USDA inspector position after learning that all U.S. slaughterhouses are required to operate with an inspector, and that he qualified for the job simply by holding a college degree.
Conover said he wanted to write his story about the day-to-day aspects of the slaughterhouse industry to learn how its employees live and think about the nature of their work. He added that he did not want to write anything like Upton Sinclair’s 1906 exposé on the faults of the industry, but rather an everyday account of working in a slaughterhouse.
“By putting myself in that situation, I understand a bit of that pain, that life,” Conover said. “You don’t understand completely, but you learn more than if you had never gone or just called someone on the phone.”
When Hungerford asked Conover what he learned through his experiences in participatory journalism, Conover said he was surprised by the connections he was able to build with other individuals. He found that he could spend time with other slaughterhouse workers if he set aside his college degree and adopted a “we’re all in this together” type of mentality, he said.
But because the institutional nature of slaughterhouses can change a person’s behavior, Conover said he often struggled between feeling a part of the industry and staying true to his own self.
“I don’t think you can feel you really belong if you’re undercover, because you can’t express yourself in a full and honest way,” Conover said. “It’s a form of research I don’t recommend, because it’s hard over time to not be able to feel you belong or tell your friends back home.”
Conover’s finished piece opens with an account of the last minutes of a cow’s life. But though Conover recognized inhumane animal treatment as an important issue, he said he chose to represent it as an underlying message rather than an overt theme.
“The idea that you can write more even-handedly and speak to more people was a really insightful way of thinking about writing,” said Leland Whitehouse ’14, a student present at the talk. “You can channel your outrage in a way that makes it more effective than just angry and visceral.”
Conover stressed the importance of being honest with readers to gain their trust. Though readers criticized him for not becoming a vegan after his stint in the slaughterhouse, Conover explained that he did not want to pretend to have moved onto a higher moral plane. Journalism, he said, is never objective, and it is futile to ask journalists to completely distance themselves from their stories.
Arielle Stambler ’14, another student at the talk, said she believes Conover’s advice greatly resonated with her.
“Whenever you’re writing anything, I think that you automatically bring a whole set of preconceived notions, and those notions may be proven or disproven by the experience you have as a journalist,” Stambler said.
Conover graduated from Amherst College and was a Marshall Scholar. He is currently a writer-in-residence at New York University.