When I worked at Time, my favorite kind of story was what we called a “conceptual scoop,” a synthesis of research and reporting from diverse sources and disciplines that presented a new way of thinking about a familiar issue. It was difficult for a weekly print magazine to break news, but the conceptual scoop offered an opportunity to provide readers with insight and analysis they might not have already encountered elsewhere.
For example, one conceptual scoop we did was a cover story on risk perception among consumers that involved examinations of clinical studies into things like GM crops and cell phone radiation, marketing strategies for these products, and the psychology of dealing with incomplete or contradictory information.
Conceptual scoops are more essential than ever, because the topics we cover are increasingly interconnected (immigration is connected to economics is connected to the environment is connected to politics, and so on…) even as stories themselves are increasingly atomized.
And essential to the production of conceptual scoops is wit—the ability to see connections among things that at first glance seem to have nothing to do with one another.
We tend to think of wit as merely being funny, and a “wit” as someone with a knack for snappy comebacks. But as I explore in “Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It,” which W.W. Norton will publish on November 13, wit is just as much a state of mind as it is a sense of humor. The word comes from a Sanskrit verb that means “to see”; hence, the word “witness.” Journalists need to be witty to bear witness to the connections others don’t see—or don’t want us to see.
One of the wittiest stories I’ve seen was delivered by Helen Rosner, The New Yorker’s food correspondent, at a recent performance of Pop-Up Magazine. It was about an unlikely subject: iceberg lettuce.
Among the few vegetables President Trump favors is iceberg lettuce, found in the common wedge salad. In fact, on the menu at Mar-a-Lago, Rosner informs us, is a hunk of iceberg topped with blue cheese, tomatoes, and bacon known as “Mr. Trump’s Wedge Salad.”
Rosner traveled to Yuma County, Arizona—the “lettuce capital of the world”—to trace iceberg’s journey from farm to presidential plate. Turns out, Yuma County is home to something else for which the president has a pronounced taste: the most heavily fortified stretch of the Mexico border in the U.S., which for tens of thousands of Mexicans makes working as a day laborer in Yuma very complicated. Crops sometimes rot in the fields because there aren’t enough workers to staff the harvest crews.
Yuma went for Trump in 2016, Rosner says, but split into two districts, which trace a distinct racial and political boundary: “Yuma’s Latinx residents are represented by Democrats. Yuma’s farmers, who are the richest and most powerful folks in the county, tend to back Republicans, and supported Donald Trump. But they’ve suffered as his administration has worked to limit the number of non-American workers who can come into Yuma … Farmers have found that fewer foreign laborers means fewer laborers, period.”
Who knew that President Trump’s favorite lettuce—a dish, like so many in the American diet, that would not exist without Mexican labor—was linked to immigration, border security, and jobs? Helen Rosner did, because she had the wit to see the connections among these seemingly unconnected things.
During World War II, the Air Force was taking heavy losses to its bomber fleet and wanted to add armor to the most vulnerable parts of planes so fewer would succumb to enemy anti-aircraft fire. Adding too much armor, though, would make the planes even more cumbersome to fly. So the Air Force collected data on the damage done to planes returning from combat and submitted that to mathematician Abraham Wald, who had fled Europe for the U.S. prior to the start of the war.
The data showed that the planes had been hit most often at various points along the fuselage. Yet Wald advised the Air Force not to place the extra armor there, but on those places that weren’t as often hit—the engines.
Wald realized that important data was missing; namely, on those planes that had not returned from their combat sorties. If the planes that made it back to base were hit along the fuselage, it stood to reason that damage to those areas wasn’t fatal. Therefore, extra protection should be provided to the parts of the surviving planes that remained intact, since those parts could be assumed to be essential to ensuring a safe return.
The Air Force did as Wald suggested, and more planes started returning safely from combat.
Wald’s analysis was witty because he saw the hidden connections between successful sorties and missing bullet holes, just as Rosner saw the hidden connections between iceberg lettuce and the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Our job is to discover and report the complex web of interconnections behind so many of our most crucial social and political challenges, to see the links others don’t see. To do that—at a time when our profession is under increasing financial pressure, political attack, and physical threat—we need to keep our wits about us.