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Uncover patterns in your story

During the reporting process, we see how the issues we cover are often perpetuated by cyclical patterns. We call these patterns feedback loops, which are a series of forces that connect to one another in a cyclical way. Feedback loops are the foundations of many systems and dictate how they function.


While feedback loops can be hard to see and articulate, this exercise can help you identify core patterns that are at the heart of a problem you're reporting on. Once you start uncovering feedback loops, it's likely that you will start seeing them everywhere.

Review core outcomes

In completing this exercise, you will be able to:

  • Identify underlying dynamic patterns at play in issues you cover;

  • Understand how these feedback loops drive your area of coverage;

  • Uncover entrenched patterns that can inform your reporting and storytelling.



40–60 minutes

Materials + set-up

This exercise works well with our Seeing Your Story as a System >  exercise, but can be done without. This exercise can be completed on your own, with your reporting team, or with members of the community.

There's also an opportunity to go deeper > and create a small systems map of interconnected feedback loops.

You will need: sticky notes, sharpies, flip chart paper

Use this corresponding slide deck > for facilitating this with your team or collaborating remotely. 

Here's what you need to get started


Identify key forces 

Think about your topic and the myriad forces and elements that contribute to or are affected by it. These can be patterns, trends, policies, attitudes, power dynamics, or beliefs.

Write down a few of these forces on a piece of paper. If you’ve already mapped your topic in the previous exercise, review the forces you surfaced.



EX: If you're covering public safety or criminal justice, you could point to:​ policing in Black neighborhoods, recidivism rates, employment opportunities, the "war on drugs," or the availability of social services.



Create a loop

Ask yourself or your team: What does that force lead to? Try to find another force you’ve already identified on a sticky note that answers that question. If you need to add a new force, that’s fine too.


Keep asking that question until you’ve looped back around to the first force. If you get stuck, work backwards. Try to keep your feedback loop size to 3-6 forces.


Keep the forces neutral. For instance, instead of saying “Inability to find a job,” say “Employment." (It will become more clear why in the next step.)

For example, if you’re working on a pattern about criminal justice, here’s what one feedback loop could look like:


Pick a force

Look at the forces you’ve written down and pick one that you or your team thinks is particularly important to your topic. Write it on a sticky note and place at the top of a large white piece of paper.


Surfacing Dynamic Patterns - Step 3.png


Describe the connections

Once you’ve created your loop, it’s time to describe the connections 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. (This is why you keep them neutral. Complex systems are always changing, which means the forces will as well. Using "+" and "-" signs can help indicate that.)

surfacing dynamic patterns - step 4.png


Review + discuss

Talk through your loop. Does it make sense? Can you explain each connection? Is there something missing that would better complete the loop?


Using loops for your reporting

Creating these loops can be a useful way of understanding the patterns that are fueling the issue you're covering. After you've created a few loops, ask your group:

  • What story can you tell that illuminates one or more feedback loops?

  • How could you report stories about ways to intervene in these loops?

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

  • Could you publish a visual of a feedback loop to help illustrate a story you're reporting?


Back to all tools 


Want to dive deeper? 

Use our tool to create connected feedback loops >

Connected loops
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