EDITOR’S NOTE: In 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 address social problems: “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 second re-frame calls for urgency: projects that reveal the immediacy of problems. Additional approaches will be posted this week and next.

By Paul A. Kramer

This problem is more of a priority than you think it is.

Immediacy comes in when readers already think of something as a problem but may not care much about it relative to their other concerns. The problem is known to them — readers don’t need an introduction — but exists in the background of their daily. Past a certain point, of course, this  reduces these matters to non-problems.

For writers interested in raising critical awareness of an issue, this can be a frustrating place to get stuck. The situation is familiar enough that readers may suspect they already know what they need to know about it. Writers can no longer offer exposure — the enticement of the previously hidden —or the thrill of a before-and-after revelation.

Here the writer’s job is to sharpen the reader’s sense of why the problem is vital. They can show that problems assumed to be hypothetical and future-projected are already erupting. They can show the stakes of the problem to be higher than previously imagined. If the problem is relegated to a faraway place and people, the writer can bring it home, showing ways it directly affects readers and their world.

To do this, writers can craft vivid, sensory imagery to communicate the problem’s impacts and implications. Or they can focus on stories of people who are already battling with it, for whom it is already a tangible and urgent reality, and whose actions might tug under-noticed trouble to the foreground.

Journalist Eric Klinenberg

Eric Klinenberg

Eric Klinenberg’s 2012 essay “Adaptation,” from The New Yorker, on preparations American city planners and disaster specialists are making for rising sea levels and intensified storms, represents a stellar example of heightened immediacy. Where writers often discuss global warming in terms of unlivable futures, the piece’s account of climate-induced catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy drops readers into climate change’s grim here-and-now:

“For the past decade and a half,” he writes, “governments around the world have been investing in elaborate plans to ‘climate-proof’ their cities—protecting people, businesses, and critical infrastructure against weather-related calamities…” While the fundamental threat to human survival has been our failure to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change, even if carbon emissions ended tomorrow, “we would probably experience several centuries of additional warming, rising sea levels, and more frequent dangerous weather events. If our cities are to survive, we have no choice but to adapt.”

The piece analyzes what makes some communities more resilient than others, paints arresting portraits of volunteer networks delivering food, water and supplies in Hurricane Sandy’s wake and outlines experts’ plans to raise and waterproof electrical cables, interlink regional communications grids and build coastal cities uphill towards higher ground. Through that, it makes climate catastrophe a burning and immediate reality.

Of course, there are perils in boosting the urgency of an issue. Writers can over-emphasize its significance for the reader rather than focus on the people it affects most intensely and negatively. And writers can come off as scolding or self-righteous, eager to display their moral alertness and impatience at readers’ failure to prioritize.

But done well, this kind of writing can thin out or eliminate the buffers that insulate readers from pressing realities that they may be trying to avoid.

Introduction: Making good trouble

I. Exposure: Highlighting overlooked problems

II. Urgency: Revealing the immediacy of problems

III. Activation: Challenging a sense of powerlessness

IV. Re-specification: Reconsidering causes and effects of a problem

V. Solidarity: Standing with those affected

VI. Responsibility: Connecting action to consequence

VII. Value-switching: Considering different moral stances

Conclusion: The gift of narrative nonfiction

NEXT: Showing the power of individual actions against a social problem


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.

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