Visualize the systems in your reporting
News coverage is often dominated by reporting on current events—a demonstration, a murder, the government's response to a pandemic, etc.
System: A set of interconnected and dynamic forces that have a collective function or purpose. Examples: the court system, social service networks, a freshwater lake, a group of friends
It's vital for journalists to take a step back, provide context for the events we cover, and illuminate the systems at play. We have the opportunity to highlight and question the policies, forces, beliefs, and power dynamics that are fueling our most entrenched problems.
This exercise offers a simple tool called the iceberg model to help you dig deeper into individual events you're reporting on and trace the underlying patterns, structures, and ideas that are producing them.
Materials + set-up
This is a quick exercise that you can do on your own or with colleagues to help think through a story idea.
You will need: pen & paper, this worksheet > (optional)
Use this corresponding slide deck > for facilitating this with your team or collaborating remotely.
To start, choose an idea for a particular event you're covering. For instance, the government's stimulus response during a pandemic, a budget decision by a county's school board, etc.
Here's what you need to get started
Review core outcomes
This tool will help you:
Trace how individual events are connected to larger policies, structures, ideas, and systems;
Think about ways your reporting can add additional context for events you're covering, and help your communities understand how those connections are fueling specific outcomes;
Consider the constructive role your reporting can play to help people understand and evaluate opportunities to better address systemic problems.
First, a quick introduction to the iceberg model
As journalists, we often focus most of our attention on the tip of the iceberg—the events that we see happening above the surface. But, as we learned from one of the most infamous icebergs in history (cue scenes of Leonardo DiCaprio), we really need to be paying attention to what’s happening below the surface.
A layer below the water line, we can see how events are connected—exploring trends and patterns happening over time. Journalists are also good at focusing on this layer, particularly through data journalism and analysis of research and reports.
A level deeper, we find the system’s structure. These are the policies, connections, and power dynamics that are influencing the patterns and shaping the system. This level answers the questions about how the system operates.
At the bottom of the iceberg, we find what are called mental models: the beliefs, assumptions, ideas, and values that affect how we see the world and dictate how systems are designed. These entrenched ideas and social narratives are often unspoken, manifesting in the system’s structure and in the patterns and events that we see.
We believe that journalists can use a systems approach to train their lens more on the bottom two levels of the iceberg, helping their communities understand the structures and ideas that drive the outcomes that are happening.
Pick an event to explore
The first thing you're going to do is pick an event that you've covered or one that you are planning to cover.
EX: For this exercise, we'll look at the COVID-19 pandemic. The event that we'll be covering is a walkout among hospital workers to demand more personal protective equipment while on the job.
This could be a rise in homeless encampments, an instance of police brutality, budget cuts to local law enforcement, etc.
Write the event at the top of this worksheet >, or use a blank piece of paper or flip chart paper to draw an iceberg and put your event at the top.
EX: Here, we could point to the spike in infection rates among medical workers, or a slowdown in the supply chain getting equipment to hospitals.
Brainstorm trends & patterns
Now let’s go below the waterline to look at the trends and patterns that are happening in connection to your event. Keeping in mind your event, write answers to these questions
in the second level of your iceberg:
What are the trends and patterns driving this event or issue?
What has been happening over time?
What data or research can I point to that relates to this issue?
How does this event connect to similar experiences?
EX: We could highlight legislative policies, or lack thereof, that affect medical workers, or the state and federal policies that apply in cases of emergency.
Identify the system's structure
Let's look at the structural level, exploring how systems are designed to produce the trends and patterns you've identified. Take a few minutes to write down specific answers to the following questions:
What specific policies are fueling the trends or patterns? These can be formal laws and policies, or informal internal standards.
What power dynamics are at play? Who is benefitting from the system as it is, and how do they benefit? Who is being harmed and how are the structures perpetuating that harm?
What are the institutional rules and practices that are driving these patterns?
EX: We could point to how certain types of labor are valued more than others. We could also interrogate the notion of who is deemed "essential" in their jobs and how those assumptions fuel the policies and power dynamics at play.
Surface mental models
Lastly, let’s identify the mental models that are at the root of our entire iceberg, or system. These can be challenging to identify, since they are often beliefs and assumptions that go unspoken, or aren't easily questioned.
What personal assumptions and beliefs do you hold about this topic?
What worldviews, beliefs, or ideas shape the policies that you've identified?
What are the unspoken assumptions that are necessary for the system to function as it does?
Write these down on your paper or at the bottom of your iceberg.
Generate ideas for your reporting
Using this tool can help us understand the forces that drive the events you're reporting on and change how we describe the ways systems function.
After you’ve filled in your iceberg, reflect on the following questions by yourself or with your team. These questions can help you generate ideas to help focus your coverage below the water line:
What would a story look like that addresses each level of the iceberg?
How have the mental models shaped the dominant narrative around your beat or topic? Whose voices could you center to challenge or inform these?
How can you reorient your beat or reporting approach to focus more deeply on the bottom two layers of the iceberg?
Consider the history of this system. What historical contexts—especially around the bottom two layers—could you provide to help people understand the system as it has been designed? How do race, class, gender and identity play a role?
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