Map your story as a system
Journalists cover incredibly complex issues, and it can be challenging to offer deep context for newsworthy events and trends—especially on a deadline.
This exercise offers a simple tool for mapping an issue or beat you're covering to look for new angles for your reporting and connections to explore. It can help you visualize the many forces at play in the systems you're covering and the connections that drive them.
Here's what you need to get started
Review core outcomes
This exercise includes a simple way to map a big issue or beat you're reporting on, as well as an opportunity to go deeper. If completed in its entirety, you'll walk away with:
A dynamic, visual guide of the many different forces and connections at play in the system you're covering;
An understanding of gaps + assumptions that may be present in your reporting or that your journalism can help address;
Ideas to diversify your stories and get input from your community.
30 - 45 minutes
Materials + set-up
You can do this exercise on your own, with your reporting team, or with members of your community or stakeholders >. We especially recommend working with a diverse group of stakeholders on the issue to invite a variety of experiences and perspectives.
This exercise is geared toward a group working together on one topic.
Are you collaborating across beats and topics? Try this >
You will need: sticky notes, sharpies, 3 sheets of flip chart paper posted side-by-side (optional) on a large, open wall
Use this corresponding slide deck > for facilitating this with your team or collaborating remotely.
Identify forces in the system
Your beat or topic doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so the first step is to understand the many forces and elements that shape it. Ask yourself or your team:
What are the forces and elements that contribute to, or are affected by, your topic?
System: A set of interconnected and dynamic forces that have a collective function or purpose. Examples: criminal justice system, a football team, the ocean, or housing.
There are no wrong answers here—you can list any element, factor, trend, policy, belief, feeling, function, or anything that you think relates to your topic in some way. Identify as many forces as possible, writing one per sticky note.
For example, if you’re reporting on homelessness, some forces you might come up with are:
Share and cluster
If you’re working as a group, share what you've written. Read each force and place it on the flip-chart paper. As people share, cluster similar forces naturally by one another.
If you're doing this on your own, or don't have flip-chart paper, you can do this on your desk on a piece of paper or on a dry-erase board.
Take a step back and look at the forces you've assembled. What's missing? Spend a few minutes adding new forces to the map.
Not every force will be negative or a problem! Some forces can be community assets or positive
things happening in
These forces don’t exist in isolation – they're directly linked to one another. Understanding how forces and elements connect is key to understanding how systems function.
Using a marker, draw lines between individual forces you've identified that connect to each other in some way. Draw as many connections as you can.
Here’s an example of what your board could look like at this point:
Step back and look at your map. Add any connections that may be missing. If you’re working with a group, are there any connections that need clarification?
The map you've created has a limitation: It's filled with assumptions you have about how the system operates and is limited by your own knowledge and experience. Take some time to consider that by asking yourself these questions:
What assumptions do you personally hold about the forces you've identified and the connections you've made?
How have your assumptions shaped the way you may have previously covered or thought about your topic?
Each group or individual should write answers to these questions on sticky notes and share their responses with the full group. As everyone shares, place the sticky notes next to the map.
Drawing reporting insights from your map
Now that you have a visual for the system you’re reporting on, use this map to generate new ideas and angles for your coverage from the forces and connections you've identified.
Individually or with your group, consider these questions:
Which of the connections were surprising or new?
Which forces have a lot of connections? How could you explore those connections in your reporting?
What elements or connections has your past coverage focused on the most? What areas of the map could you investigate more?
What would a story look like that addresses three of these forces and connections? What about five?
Expanding your map
Creating the map can be an illuminating exercise on its own. It can also be a living document for your reporting that you can continue to build as you learn more about the system and get feedback.
Here are a few ideas for how you can continue to draw from and strengthen your systems map:
Use a tool like Kumu > to create a digital, editable version of your map that you can update over time as you report on this issue.
Share an image of your map with individual sources and stakeholders who have different experiences and knowledge of the issue. Ask them what they would add to the map, or if they would challenge any of the connections you've made.
Convene a diverse group of stakeholders from across the system (our stakeholder tool > can help you identify them) and run this same exercise with them. Compare the results with the map you made and edit your map accordingly.
Use the Analyzing Your Forces > exercise to understand the different types of forces in your map and identify opportunities for change.
(Optional) Collaborating across topics? Try this instead.
Instead of doing this as a large group around a single issue, try collaborating around different beats.
Break into groups of 1–3 people. Each group should have a piece of flip chart paper in front of them. In your small group, pick a topic that you’ve been reporting on and write it at the top of the paper.
Take a few minutes to brainstorm as many forces as possible and place them on the paper using sticky notes. Then swap maps with another group and contribute forces to each other’s maps. Return to your maps and take 3–5 minutes to draw connections that stand out. Then swap again and draw new connections on another group's map.
Swap as many times as your group size and time allow. Once you've identified forces and connections, have each team discuss their map with the full group and answer the questions starting in step 4. As you share, ask team members to clarify forces or connections they added that may not be clear.