“If this whole romaine lettuce recall has taught me anything,” I say to my friends over a sushi lunch, “it’s that people don’t know what romaine lettuce is.”
We prod the lettuce in our bowls for a moment before determining that it’s iceberg, not romaine.
“You should write a blog post about that,” one of my friends responds, laughing.
So here I am. What I want to write about today is not actually all of the types of lettuce, or even the romaine recall specifically. I want to write about my observation—that on several occasions when I ordered food with friends in the past few weeks, people were hesitant, but willing, to admit that they didn’t know what romaine lettuce is.
Obviously, it’s not a big deal to say you can’t identify two types of lettuce. But I think this speaks to a larger trend in society: on the whole, we’re not always willing to admit we don’t know other things for fear of seeming unintelligent or out of the loop.
On the night of the U.S. midterm elections in November, I got a text from a friend that read, “What does the sentence ‘Democrats take the house and Republicans take the Senate mean?’” After I explained it to him, his response made me laugh: “I thought this was going to be the one deciding if he (Donald Trump) was going to be president again.”
My friend is Canadian; he’s under no obligation to understand the American political system. But when his messages popped up on my phone, I admired his ability to ask about what he didn’t understand. It’s something I wish more people did—because sometimes the news isn’t easy to understand, and we’re all better for admitting that we have questions about what’s happening in the world.
Although I keep fairly up to date on American politics, there are times when, like my friend, I’m confused about what is happening. Some news coverage presupposes an understanding of a subject. As a reader, I try to seek out forms of media that help me gain a better understanding of a certain topic. The Daily, a podcast from the New York Times, does a great job at breaking down complex issues—I wrote in September about how it changed my news consumption.
This week was a whirlwind of political news in the U.S. Among the headlines: Senate passed a criminal justice reform bill, defence secretary James Mattis will step down at the end of February after Trump tweeted that he would pull the American military out of Syria, the federal government faces a shutdown over funding for Trump’s proposed border wall, the stock market had what CNN referred to as a “miserable week” and Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, had his sentence postponed.
Amidst the news out of the Mueller investigation recently, Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, asked a critical question: “Does the public understand just how much trouble the president is in?”
“If not, that’s a failing of the press,” he continued. He said that journalists need to zoom out of the hourly developments—all of those stories I listed above that were “BREAKING” at one point during the week—and show the public the bigger picture. This is an “extraordinary time,” Stelter continued; and, he said, that calls for new forms of storytelling.
I think it also calls for what is, in some ways, a return to the basics. Sometimes, good storytelling is simple storytelling. It’s breaking down what the Democratic and Republican parties are, and what it means to have a majority of seats in either the House or Senate. And sometimes, it’s showing people how romaine lettuce is different from iceberg.