EDITOR’S NOTE: In a series on making “good trouble” through journalism, Paul A. Kramer of Vanderbilt University argues for seven approaches that can help create partnerships between writers and readers to better address social problems. From his introduction: “The best narrative non-fiction writing on social problems … grapples with a particular social reality in order to question it, subject it to critical attention and convince readers that its existence and continuance is not inevitable.”
The first of the re-frames calls for exposure: stories that highlight problems “hidden in plain sight.” Additional approaches will be posted this week and next.
This problem is something you need to know is happening.Exposure work takes on issues that readers are expected to see as problems in the abstract, or in the past, but that they don’t know are real and serious in their present world. So the writer’s job is to raise awareness of the situation and convey what needs to be known about it. It’s the classic form of social-investigatory writing, one that dates back at least as far as the American “muckraking” journalism of the turn-of-the-20th-century.
Projects in exposure can rely on a rosy assessment of readers, their values and the ways they read and think. They can, for example, suppose that author and reader already share common values and that what readers ultimately need most is information: If they only knew what was going on, they would think and act differently.
So the writer pledges to reveal things that readers are simply unaware of, or that might seem implausible or even impossible, or that have until now been concealed. Writers often use the commonplace language of a problem “hidden in plain sight,” piquing readers’ curiosity with the promise of disclosure.
Nikole Hannah-Jones’ article 2014 ProPublic piece, “Segregation Now,” offered a gripping example of exposure journalism: She zeroed in on the racial re-division of American schools that has been occurring in recent decades. Through the educational experiences of James, Melissa and D’Leisha Dent, from three generations of a Black family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the piece tells of school integration’s national rise and fall in ways that expose segregation’s persistence and shatters complacent narratives of advancement. From the project:
“Tuscaloosa’s schools today are not as starkly segregated as they were in 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared an end to separate and unequal education in America…” she writes, but school segregation is “no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else. In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.”
Where readers might come to the subject with vague, optimistic visions of progress, Hannah-Jones instead brings to light the ways that conservatives’ defiance of court-ordered desegregation, white flight from integrated schools that cross demographic “tipping points” and the pressure to attract investment by companies with mostly white staffs conspired to reverse earlier gains.
As she shows, to devastating effect, the result has been deeper segregation and stratification, declining educational opportunities for Black students and widening gaps in achievement. While the fact of school segregation itself — especially in the past — should not be new to her readers, Hannah-Jones’ exposure of present-day “apartheid schools” recasts integration as an abandoned project that must be revitalized.
Beware sensationalism and simplification
Exposure work can come with occupational hazards. Writers can sensationalize, over-dramatizing an issue in order to break through readers’ assumed ignorance, or they can simplify matters in the pursuit of punch or monetized attention. Where such writing assumes shared values, it can fail to connect with readers who bring different moral frameworks to bear and who may need to be directly engaged at that more fundamental level.
Reliance on an exposure mode also can shut out those who are already painfully aware of the problem, especially those harmed by it. How many authors promise to expose social worlds that are supposedly invisible or hidden to an assumed mainstream readership that is white, middle-class, invested with citizenship or otherwise empowered in ways that many people simply aren’t?
Here the “other half” is separated from and uninvited to the conversation about them, but as the object of pity and prurience. And those who have exercised the privileges of unawareness up to this point get to enjoy the additional pleasures of sudden revelation, a sense of enlightenment and the chance to perform this enlightenment to others.
This is not an inevitable result of exposure work, but it is a risk. The best writing in this mode makes troubling realities known in ways that undercut or dismantle these social divisions rather than reinforce them, convening broad-based publics by calling them to outrage and action, including publics that had not previously existed.
NEXT: Revealing the urgency and immediacy of social problems
Paul A. Kramer is an associate professor at Vanderbilt University, where he teaches history and non-fiction writing. He is the author of several academic studies and essays that have been published by major news sites. His book, “The Blood of Government,” has won several awards, including being named a finalist for the Philippines National Book Award in the social science category.