An intro to systems thinking for journalists
Participants from the Bay Area Media Collaborative showcase a feedback loop about housing insecurity at Journalism + Design's
systems thinking workshop in July 2018. Photo: Garrick Wong, Renaissance Journalism.
System: A set of interconnected and dynamic forces that have a collective function or purpose. Examples: public transportation, a basketball team, your body.
Our world faces many complex problems—climate change, global pandemics, systemic racism, to name a few. These problems don't have easy fixes. If we want to create lasting change, we have to take a step back and look at the interconnecting systems that shape them.
What is Systems Thinking?
Systems thinking is a way of looking at the world and the underlying connections, patterns, and ideas that shape it. It's a set of tools for understanding complex problems and identifying opportunities for learning and change.
Seeing the world in systems helps us look beyond immediate events and dig deeper into the forces, structures, and values that fuel them.
For journalists, systems thinking is a way to contextualize the events you cover, explain what might be perpetuating the problems that you report on day in and day out, and explore what can be done to transform systems that work to the benefit of a few, at the expense of many.
Every day, journalists grapple with ways to document the impacts of these systems. The stories we tell and the information we share shape the way people see the world, their roles in it, and how they act to change it.
How can journalists help people better understand the forces driving society's most pressing challenges? How can newsrooms adopt strategies that hold entire systems accountable, and inform ways to address our most entrenched problems?
Enter systems thinking.
Think about it like an iceberg ...
Journalists often report on stories above the water line—the emerging events and actions that we cover as "news." For example, let's say we're reporting on protests that erupt after a police officer is filmed killing a Black man.
A layer below the surface, we can see how events are influenced by trends and patterns happening over time. For instance, we could cite a history of complaints against the officer or the disproportionate number of Black people who are killed or arrested by police.
Going a level deeper, we can see the policies and power dynamics that influence the patterns. We might point to qualified immunity, the influence of a local police union, a "broken windows" approach to policing, or limited police training.
At the very bottom of the iceberg, we find what are called mental models: the collective beliefs, assumptions, ideas, and values that affect how we see the world and dictate why systems are designed the way they are. For example, we can point to assumptions about crime in Black neighborhoods, or the belief that more police are necessary to keep crime rates going down, or that diverting funds from police to social services produces better outcomes for Black communities.
A systems approach encourages journalists to center their reporting on the bottom two layers of the iceberg. How can we better interrogate and illuminate the policies and power dynamics that are fueling the events we see? How can we inform, challenge, and elevate the mental models about how systems work, or how they could work, to produce healthier, more
equitable outcomes for all?
If we focus on helping our communities understand the ways systems are designed and the connections, forces, and ideas that drive them, then we can inform opportunities to pursue systemic change.
How can a systems approach shape journalism?
A reporter from New Hampshire Public Radio draws connections between forces affecting the 2020 Presidential primary during Journalism + Design's systems thinking workshop in February 2019.
Let's look at an example of systems thinking in action for a high-profile news event: covering the 2020 presidential primary in New Hampshire.
The state has long held the distinction of being the first in the nation to host a presidential primary. At the event level, the reporter covers campaign stops, turnout at local rallies, and candidates' statements.
A step deeper—the trends and patterns—they might frame the events with polling data and explore whether candidates' messages are resonating with different voting groups.
When we look at the bottom two layers of the iceberg, new opportunities for reporting arise. We start to see and question why the primary process is structured the way that it is and examine the traditions, policies, and behind-the-scenes power brokers.
In 2019, following a workshop we conducted with them about this system, journalists at New Hampshire Public Radio decided to do exactly that: interrogate the institutional foundations of the primary and the forces that shape it.
In particular, their podcast, Stranglehold >, explored the power dynamics at play. The NHPR team asked: "What power comes with holding the 'first in the nation' presidential primary? Who most benefits from this power?" They also asked: What are the consequences of the system as it's currently designed?
By taking a systems approach, NHPR opened up new possibilities for how people view the primary and whose interests are best served by the current system.
Applying a systems practice in the newsroom
Systems thinking is a habit of mind that all journalists and newsroom leaders can practice over time with an eye toward the bigger picture. Whether you’re a reporter on deadline who wants fresh ideas for approaching your beat, an editor planning a new reporting project with a team, or a newsroom leader looking to support a new, community-centered editorial strategy, this approach and mindset can help.
Fundamentally, a systems practice offers journalists an opportunity to rethink the nature of our work, the role that journalism plays in influencing the way people understand the world, and our responsibility in challenging systems of power that harm, marginalize, or benefit specific people and communities.
The tools that we've assembled on this site are designed as flexible exercises that you can try on your own and with your team to explore how a systems practice can inform your reporting.
This introduction only scratches the surface of the world of systems thinking, which is why we have also assembled a variety of readings and resources > that can help you dig deeper.
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