Uncover assumptions + beliefs driving the system
Conscious or not, we all hold assumptions, beliefs, and ideas about how systems work, or should work. While often unspoken, these individual and shared ideas, which we call "mental models," shape the way that systems are designed and how they function.
For journalists, mental models deeply influence our
reporting and the lens with which we approach and frame the stories we tell. This exercise is a way to surface and interrogate our own assumptions, and those that fundamentally drive the nature of the systems we cover.
System: A set of interconnected and dynamic forces that have a collective function or purpose. Examples: law enforcement, a baseball team, a family, or local news ecosystems.
Review core outcomes
After this exercise, you will walk away with:
An understanding of the underlying mental models that shape the issue you're covering;
A perspective on how mental models may influence your coverage;
Ideas for stories that can lead to different ways of thinking around the issue you're reporting on.
Materials + set-up
This exercise can be done alone, with your reporting team, or with members of the community. Working with a diverse group of people leads to more generative, rich conversations and actions.
If you’ve already completed earlier exercises for a particular topic you're reporting on, revisit that topic for this exercise. If you haven’t, choose an issue you’re reporting on that you want to explore.
You will need: sticky notes, sharpies, flip chart paper.
Here's what you need to get started
Surface your personal assumptions
To start, we'll examine our own role in the system we're reporting on and take stock of the assumptions that shape our understanding of how it works.
Write down 3–5 assumptions that you personally hold about the topic you’re exploring, and why things are the way they are. Write one per sticky note. These may seem obvious to you, but it's important to name the assumptions that you might often take for granted.
If you feel comfortable sharing these with the group, do that now.
EX: If you're looking at housing and homelessness, some personal assumptions could be:
"Addressing homelessness is a top priority for most residents."
"Most individuals experiencing homelessness suffer from addiction as well."
"If we built more homes, we could fix homelessness."
Identify mental models
Now let’s go deeper. Besides personal assumptions and biases, there are collective ideas or beliefs that people hold about how the world works, or should work. We call these ideas and beliefs mental models.
Write down 5–7 mental models that drive or influence the system you're reporting on, one per sticky note. Dig deep to think about the common and shared assumptions that shape how different people see and understand the issue. Ask:
What are the key assumptions, ideas and beliefs that keep the system functioning as it does?
Share what you’ve come up with to your group, placing them on a blank wall. If there are common themes, group them together. This may signify their strength in the system.
EX: Let's revisit housing. Some mental models could be:
"Addressing homelessness is a top priority in our community."
"Housing is a human right."
"We don't have the resources to fundamentally fix homelessness."
Group reflection + discussion
Looking at what you've surfaced, discuss these questions with your group. Start by writing your own answers to each question and then share individually with the group.
How do these mental models inform how you and your newsroom approach and frame the stories you report?
How do these mental models shape policies and actions (or lack thereof) that influences how the system works?
Which mental models are driving policies, action, or inaction that may be harming or benefiting specific people or communities?
Shifting the narrative + informing change
The stories we share as journalists can reinforce, challenge, and inform the mental models that fundamentally influence our policies, actions and attitudes. If we gain a better understanding of the beliefs, ideas and assumptions that are driving our most entrenched problems, we can identify opportunities for reporting that helps people think differently about ways to address them.
Take some time alone or with your group to review the mental models you identified, particularly those that may be perpetuating harmful systems and policies. As you do this, reflect on the following questions:
What information, perspectives, and ideas could help people imagine new possibilities for systemic change?
What is a story pitch that would directly inform or challenge one or more of these mental models?
How can you center and elevate the voices of those most affected by the issue? And how could that shift the dominant narrative?