EDITOR’S NOTE: In a series on making “good trouble” through journalism, Paul A. Kramer of Vanderbilt University argues for seven story approaches that can help 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 conclusion of the rhetorical re-frames reminds writers that it requires a thoughtful process of reporting; he cautions against overreach and underscores the value of this work to society.
Social-change journalism: risks and rewards
Narratives that explore social problems are core to good journalism. As society and its accompanying problems become more complex, I suggest a reframe of classic projects that can highlight primary journalistic tasks:
- Exposure: This problem is something you need to know is happening
- Urgency: This problem is more of a priority than you think it is
- Activation: You can do something about this problem
- Re-specification: This problem is not what you think it is
- Solidarity: We need to stand with the people whom this problem affects
- Responsibility: You have something to do with why this problem is happening
- Value-switching: Let’s look at this problem from a different moral stance
To be clear, these seven categories don’t so much refer to specific, overarching types of pieces as to the tasks stories can undertake or goals they can help achieve. The richest journalistic work weaves these tasks together in subtle and intricate ways.
So, for example, you may find yourself bringing some new problem to readers’ attention, but also heightening its reality and sense of urgency in ways that help readers feel solidarity with those most affected. Ideally, whichever of these tasks the writer takes up, they blend in ways that allow readers to experience them as an effortless whole.
The tasks the writer chooses to emphasize in a project also can shift during the reporting and writing. They may start off with the intent of exposing a problem or re-specifying its cause or building solidarity, only to discover that the story they’re exploring requires other reframes or a different of mix of them. The writer’s research shifts into the drafting process and they have to come to grips, sentence by sentence, with the question of audience: Whom, among their readers, do they most want to reach? There’s seldom one, great, dramatic point of decision — no clear roadmap for this work — only smaller, incremental choices that build on each other.
Focus on the people affected by the problem
Are there limitations to approaching non-fiction writing about society through the lens of social problems? First, of course, the language of “problems” is abstract and, like all abstractions, risks draining and sanitizing the harsh realities of life. So it’s worth stressing that when you write about “social problems,” you are always writing about people: issues that infuse and structure people’s experiences, their relationships with each other, and the institutions they build and live within. The story isn’t about the “problem” per se: It’s about how people experience it, how it is embedded in their lives, how they think about it and relate to it, how they live with it and struggle against it.
It’s also, of course, about who is responsible for the problem and whose interests, power, profits and status are advanced by it. It’s about those who sowed its seeds and kept it growing. It’s about the work they did to legitimize and normalize it, in part by making sure that it’s not regarded as a problem in the first place. It may not be your goal to anger these people, but they won’t celebrate you doing it — especially if you do your job effectively.
Problem-centered approaches also have limitations from a practical angle. Readers pick up non-fiction writing for countless purposes that can have little to do with a desire to delve into society’s thorniest problems. They want to travel, encounter new people, access quick-and-useful information, learn something new, even spend companionable time with a writer’s voice and savor the delights of well-crafted language. When social problems exercise too strong a gravitational pull, readers can be denied the other gifts they expect, and they will flee.
But thinking about the limitations of problem-centering has value politically and ethically. Writing that sets out too confidently from a cozy, shrink-wrapped sense of a problem can come across as authoritarian. The textual world gets engineered around the problem, with every narrative beat and detail machine-tooled to dramatize it. Such writing conveys that nothing can be left to chance — or to the reader.
The best social-change narratives, by contrast, guide the reader’s political and moral imagination without assigning it a single, fixed destination. They provide rich, open-ended surface areas, textures and moments that are never reducible to the problems the writer hopes to highlight. In this way, they give readers the chance for unpredictable and perhaps transformative encounters, including with problems the author hasn’t noticed before.
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 c