Surfacing Underlying Assumptions
Newsroom decisions are driven by our own experiences, worldviews, and assumptions. Mental models – the individual and collective beliefs, assumptions, and world views that we hold about how things work – are often at the root of why it can be so hard to make changes in our newsrooms. Systems thinking can help us surface them.
Identifying mental models helps us understand how and why our systems are shaped the way they are. After this exercise, you'll will walk away with the following:
Your personal assumptions about newsroom processes and practices
An opportunity to surface and discuss how these mental models affect one another
An understanding of the underlying mental models that influence newsroom practices
45 - 60 minutes
Materials + set-up
This exercise works best with a diverse group of people from the newsroom. Consider different roles, experiences, and backgrounds when convening. This can be a heavy session and unearth unspoken beliefs, so the space should be thoughtfully created and convened so that everyone can participate and feel comfortable sharing.
Materials needed: flip chart paper, sticky notes, flip chart paper.
Here's what you need to get started
Surfacing Underlying Assumptions
Identify your personal assumptions
Write down 5 assumptions that you, yourself, hold about the topic you’ve chosen, positive or negative. If your topic is bolstering diversity in the newsroom, perhaps you assume that there isn’t funding to bring in new hires. Or you don't think management is fully invested in supporting a more inclusive environment.
Write one assumption per sticky note.
Pair + share
Pair up with someone and share some of the assumptions you identified. This can be a sensitive discussion, so only share what you’re comfortable with and listen with empathy.
Surface mental models
Now let’s go deeper. Besides personal assumptions, there are deeply entrenched mental models that drive the system. These often manifest as worldviews or beliefs, and are essentially the collective mindsets we carry about how things world should work. From a newsroom perspective, one mental model could be:
"The speed of the news cycle is unchangeable
and we have to keep up."
Considering your topic (you can use your systems map of the newsroom if you made one in the earlier steps), write down at least three mental models that enable or inhibit your topic. One per sticky note.
As a group, share the mental models you’ve come up with, placing your sticky notes on an open space or large piece of sticky note paper.
Cluster similar assumptions together and label them. For example, if many assumptions have to do with the role of social media in the news, group these together and call them “Social Media” or something that reflects the nature of the assumptions.
It's crucial to take time to debrief the assumptions and mental models that have been surfaced during this exercise. As a group, review what you've come up with and discuss the following questions:
Who could we talk with to better understand whether our assumptions are true?
What actions, experiences, or protocols in the newsroom have informed these mental models?
Which mental models are particularly entrenched, inaccurate, or problematic? What forces have the ability to perpetuate these mental models?
What are some actions we can take to shift those mental models that are harmful?
We recommend taking some time to individually reflect first, then pair with someone to discuss, and then share out to the larger group.
Conscious or not, everyone holds assumptions about the spaces and systems they work with(in).
Mental models – the underlying beliefs, worldviews, and experiences that we individually and collectively hold – fundamentally drive the newsroom as a system.
Surfacing and interrogating our assumptions and mental models can lead to impactful, meaningful change and a deeper understanding of one another.