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Mapping a complex issue

The world is full of complex problems – income inequality, gentrification, climate change – each made up of a set of interconnected and dynamic forces. Often times, our reporting focuses on these problems as standalone events: a family was evicted, or a bill was passed. But what would it look like if we could paint the whole picture – one that encompassed the trends, patterns, beliefs, structures, and power dynamics that interact to make a complex, dynamic system? 

Who will benefit from this?

This section is geared for reporters and editors who want to get a more holistic view of a particular issue or system at the heart of a story or beat they're working on, and the root causes that are driving it. 


These tools are simple, flexible exercises that can apply to any issue, topic, or system that you're focusing on in your reporting

What will I learn?

  • Understand how to orient your reporting toward the root causes and patterns that underlie individual events;

  • Surface new ideas to diversify the kinds of stories being told and expand your lens;

  • Identify the assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs that influence systems and explore creative ways that your reporting can inform them;

  • Create story-planning strategies that can illuminate opportunities for structural change.

Variable (3 HRS - 2 DAYS)

Flip chart paper, sticky notes, markers, pens, & paper. 

Part 1: Chaos mapping for your story or beat

Chaos mapping is a flexible, collaborative tool that can help you understand the structure of a complex system or topic you’re reporting on. The goal is to visualize the forces at play within your issue and how they’re connected to make a web of interdependencies.


Room Setup: 3 sheets of flip chart paper posted side-by-side on a large, open wall


Step one:  Using sticky notes, individually identify the forces within your system, one force per note. Ask: What are the forces that contribute to, and are affected by, your issue? A force could be a pattern or trend, policy, attitude, power dynamic, or belief.


For example, if you’re reporting on crime in your city, you would ask: What are the forces that contribute to, and are affected by, crime in my community? In this example, some forces could be: incarceration, drug use, employment, or trust in police.


The goal here is to identify as many forces as possible – quantity over quality. Write one force per sticky note. Not every force will be negative, or a problem. Some forces can be community assets or positive things happening in the system. 


Step 2: Each participant shares what they’ve come up. Read each force individually and place the sticky notes on the flip-chart paper. If the same force comes up many times, that could say something about the weight it has within the system.


Step 3: Take a step back to recognize the scope of the issue you’re grappling with. Also ask yourselves: Is there anything missing? Add any forces that may be missing.

Step 4: This next step will be clustering the forces you've generated in line with what is called the S-A-T Model, which labels each force in one of three categories:

  • Structural: Natural or built environments, institutions, and infrastructure (examples: the transportation system, education, or water quality)

  • Attitudinal: The attitudes, worldviews, assumptions, and beliefs that affect how people think and behave (examples: fear, pride, or a sense of security)

  • Transactional: The key interactions that take place between stakeholders in the system (examples: a debate that took place, a community meeting, or someone being incarcerated)


As a group, identify each force as structural, attitudinal, or transactional. Sometimes, forces will fall into multiple categories, so it’s useful to talk through how you’re thinking about each force and determine where it most strongly belongs. For instance, “Incarceration” can fall into both Structural and Transactional, so it’s important to parse out what you’re talking about. Is it people going to prison? That would be transactional. Or is it mass incarceration or the prison industrial complex? That would be structural.


Place structural forces on the left side of the flip chart paper, attitudinal in the middle, and transactional on the right. If you notice that one category has less than the others, try to think of new forces that fall into that category, which haven’t appeared on the map yet. Here’s an example of what your board should look like now:

Part 1
Mapping - Step 1.png

Step 5: Connect. These forces don’t exist in isolation. Using a marker, draw connections between the individual forces. Connect forces both within the S-A-T categories and outsides of them. Draw as many connections as you can.

Here’s an example of what your board could look like at this point:

Mapping - Step One - 2.png


The purpose of the map it to uncover unique reporting angles and gaps in your coverage by showing how the different forces intersect with one another. Here are some follow-up questions you could ask your group:

  • Which forces have a lot of connections coming in and out of them? Have you investigated these connections in your reporting?

  • Looking at the S-A-T categories, was there one category that you surfaced more or less? Is your reporting focused on it enough, or too much? 

  • Which forces has your newsroom's reporting focused on in the past? Which have you not reported on?


When it comes to applying this to your reporting, ask yourself:

  • What would a story or series look like that addresses information at all three levels?

  • How can you use the S-A-T model to analyze existing responses to the issue?

  • What bright spots in the community or system can you point to that are leveraging change against all three levels?

Instead of doing this as a large group around a single issue, try collaborating around different beats.

Break into groups of 1-3 people – either beat-specific or small, cross-beat groups. 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 3-5 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 to each other’s maps. Return to your maps and take 3-5 minutes to draw connections that stand out. Then swap again.

Swap as many times as your group size and time allows. 

Try This Instead: Collaborative Mapping 

Part 2: Recognizing the feedback loops that drive systems you're covering 

Feedback loops are the patterns that drive systems. Feedback loops are a series of forces that connect to one another in a cyclical way to form a loop. The goal is to develop an understanding of the cyclical nature of the system and how it sustains itself in its current form.


Step 1: Looking at the forces on your chaos map, pick one that you or your team thinks is important.  Place the sticky note on the top of your flip chart paper.


Step 2: Ask: What does that force cause? Try to find another force you’ve already identified on a sticky note that answers that question. If you need to add new forces, that’s fine too. Keep asking that question until you’ve looped back around to the first force. If you get stuck, try working backwards. Try to keep your loop size to 3-6 forces.


Keep the forces neutral. For example, instead of saying “Inability to find a job,” say “Employment.” 


Step 3:  Once you’ve created your loop, it’s time to label the relationship between each force. In the graphic below, notice how an increase in Incarceration leads to a decrease in Employment Stability. Use “+” and “-” signs to indicate the relationships between each force.

Step 5:  Take a step back and talk through your loop. Does it make sense? Are you able to talk through each connection? Is there something missing that’s crucial to this story? 



Creating these loops can be a useful way of organizing some of the complexity reflected in your chaos maps. These can also become useful graphics and syntheses to include in your stories. After you’ve created a few, ask your group:

  • Is there a story you can tell that illuminates a particular feedback loop?

  • How might this feedback loop connect to another? And another?

  • Are there ways to disrupt that loop with your reporting?

  • Who can you bring in from the community to test the accuracy of your feedback loop? Name 3 people.

Part 2

Part 3: Stakeholder Mapping

While it’s important to have an understanding of the forces, connections, and patterns driving a system, crucial to that is understanding who is a part of the system as well. These are the stakeholders – those directly and indirectly involved with, acting upon, or affected by the system.


For your reporting, mapping these stakeholders could uncover new communities to engage with, unique sources, and create a more diverse group of individuals that can participate in the reporting process.


Step 1: Using sticky notes, individually identify the stakeholders within your system, one per note. Ask: Who are the stakeholders affected by or contributing to the system? A stakeholder could be an individual, organized group, community, or group of people with a common trait.


The goal here is to identify as many stakeholders as possible – quantity over quality. Write one per sticky note. If you’re stuck, think about:

  • Who is most affected?

  • Who is doing work on the issue?

  • Who is a power broker on the issue?

  • Who is indirectly affected? (Your chaos map could be helpful here.)

Step 2: Each person takes turns sharing the stakeholders they came up with. If there are duplicates, take note, that could indicate their influence in the system. Notice if anyone or group is missing, add them.

Step 3: Cluster similar stakeholders together. These should be natural groupings that you all decide on. For instance, you could group stakeholders by their role (government officials, family members, community activists).



Stakeholder mapping is a key part of the reporting and systems thinking process. In order to have a holistic understanding of the system you’re reporting on, you have to know those involved. After you’re done mapping, ask your team:

  • How are these stakeholders affected by the system?

  • What is your newsroom’s relationship with them?

  • What is their capacity to influence or affect change within the system?

  • What information do they need?

Part 3

Part 4: Surfacing Mental Models 

Systems are often so complex because they are driven by mental models: the individual and collective beliefs, assumptions, and worldviews that people hold about how things should work. 


One of the fundamental purposes of systems thinking is to uncover and challenge the mental models that keep unhealthy systems stuck where they are. In your reporting, surfacing these mental models can provide deeper insight on an issue and allow for nuanced, complex questioning of sources that challenges these mental models.

Step 1: If you’ve made a chaos map (part one), go back to it. If you haven’t, think about a topic you’re reporting on. Now we will examine our own, individual role in the system, and take stock of the assumptions that shape our own understanding and participation within it. 


Write down 5 assumptions that you personally hold about the system you’re exploring. For example, if you’re looking at housing and homelessness, one personal assumption could be:


“Most individuals experiencing homelessness suffer from addiction as well.”

Step 2: Now let’s go deeper. Besides assumptions and biases, there are deeply entrenched mental models that drive the system. These often manifest as worldviews or beliefs – ideas that we collectively carry about how the world should work. 


Looking at your map, write down 5-7 mental models that drive the system. For example, let’s look at homelessness again. One deeply entrenched mental model is:


“Homelessness is a personal failure.”

Step 3: After identifying these mental models, think about who holds these. Use your stakeholder map. Are there particular groups or individuals that have these beliefs or worldviews that also hold a lot of power in the system?


Next to each mental model, write down which stakeholders in the system hold it.



Looking at the mental models you surfaced, ask yourself:

  • Within the newsroom, how do your beliefs and worldviews inform how your report out and cover your community?

Which mental models prevent change and equity within your community? How can your reporting shift them?

Part 4
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