Systems Thinking

Complexity, participation and power: Lessons from blending systems thinking and journalism

What would it look like if more journalism focused on illuminating complex systems over surface-level events? How could journalists better equip their communities with the information they need to understand and address our most entrenched problems?

These are questions we’ve been asking at Journalism + Design in recent years to explore the intersections between journalism and a practice called systems thinking.

Since 2017, we’ve been experimenting with systems thinking as a strategy for journalists to inform opportunities for systemic change with their reporting and examine ways to shift the systems that shape our world toward healthier, more equitable outcomes. 

What started as a thought experiment grew into dozens of workshops that our J+D team facilitated for hundreds of journalists around the world, deep collaborations with news organizations like El Tímpano and The Baltimore Sun, and an open-source toolkit to help anyone apply systems thinking in their journalism.

Our work challenged journalists to examine the role they play in the systems they cover and consider how journalism can be a more active catalyst for systems change. As I reflect on the past four years I’ve spent leveraging a systems practice for journalism, here are three big things I’ve learned.

1) Holding the powerful accountable means holding entire systems to account.

A core pillar of journalism revolves around the idea of “holding the powerful accountable.” For many journalists, that often means individual entities who hold power: elected officials, corporate leaders, public agencies, etc. 

It became clear to me early on in this project that applying a systems lens to journalism goes a step deeper than holding individuals accountable; it means holding entire systems to account. Newsrooms can claim impact if a mayor resigns after their reporting revealed corruption, though a single politician’s resignation won’t necessarily change the systems that allow and breed more corruption.

This idea has massive implications for how journalists frame their reporting and beats. It requires us to interrogate the systems that fuel power inequities, the myriad forces that motivate actors across the system to act like they do, and the deeply held assumptions and worldviews that drive the resilience of our most harmful systems. How can journalists focus their reporting more on improving the health of systems so that abuses of power don’t occur in the first place?

Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science, wrote a brilliant piece about the need for more “sociological” storytelling, using Game of Thrones as the example. She talks about the importance of shifting our lens from individuals to centering the external forces and conditions that drive their decisions. 

“[I]f we can better understand how and why characters make their choices,” Tufekci writes, “we can also think about how to structure our world that encourages better choices for everyone.”

Rather than centering on individual accountability, telling more systems-oriented stories can help us see the different policies, forces and power dynamics that fuel corruption and abuses of power. This reframing can help journalists more adequately detail the underlying structures at play and expand the impact their reporting can have. 

2) Journalists can convene communities around opportunities for systemic change.

Orienting journalism around potential interventions that could shift systems toward healthier, more equitable outcomes means creating spaces for people to participate. 

This practice involves journalists thinking of themselves as conveners and facilitators. What would it look like if a goal of your newsroom was to bring together people from across your community to better understand complex problems and ways to more effectively address them? 

In his book Systems Thinking for Social Change, author David Peter Stroh offers examples of convening a diverse group of stakeholders on a given issue to visualize the systems at play, their roles within them, and collective steps that they could take to achieve better outcomes. In this book—and across many case studies I’ve read on systems change—journalists are notoriously absent from this process. Yet we think local news organizations are well suited to serve as facilitators for these types of constructive conversations. 

This idea has been a key part of our work at Journalism + Design. In 2019, we designed and facilitated a series of roundtables in partnership with Renaissance Journalism, where we gathered journalists, organizers, local officials, community members and funders to explore how newsrooms could better report on local housing crises, which informed this guide. Last Fall, we worked with El Tímpano in Oakland to draw insights from a variety of local stakeholders on how overcrowded housing impacts the health of the city’s Latino and Mayan immigrants, and what could be done to address the structural issues at play. 

We think there’s lots of untapped potential for news organizations to play the role of facilitator in creating more participatory spaces for community members to collaboratively learn from and inform one another about the big issues we face.

3) There’s more work to be done – and plenty of bright spots.

With a background in sustainable peacebuilding and social change, I started this work as an outsider to journalism. While getting to know the industry, I came up against a lot of the entrenched problems and traditions that prevent a more systemic approach: reporting and editing routines that emphasize surface-level events, a sheer lack of resources and time needed to dig deeper, and deeply held notions of “objectivity.”

However, as we began working with innovative journalists across the country, I realized that many are doing important work to examine how news organizations can reckon with the power they hold (and often hold over marginalized communities) and shift the trajectory of journalism toward being a force for systemic change. A few examples that have been particularly inspiring to me:

  • The work that Lewis Raven Wallace is doing to deconstruct the myth of objectivity is vital to examining the roles that journalists play in the systems we cover and confronting how journalism can perpetuate oppression.
  • Our colleagues at the Solutions Journalism Network are showing how journalists can go beyond covering problems and illuminate how people are responding to our most pressing issues. We think solutions-oriented and systems-oriented approaches go hand in hand, and often cite Amanda Ripley’s groundbreaking piece, Complicating the Narrative, as a guide for telling stories about complexity. 
  • Newsrooms like Capital Public Radio are showing how an inclusive, participatory approach can inform meaningful responses to sensitive issues. CPR’s recent After the Assault series blends a variety of practices such as trauma-informed reporting, systems thinking, and community engagement to change the conversation around sexual violence. 
  • Organizations like City Bureau, Outlier Media, and Resolve Philly are challenging the ways that local newsrooms have traditionally operated, creating spaces for more people to be deeply embedded in the journalism process, equipping communities with the information they need to shift unhealthy and inequitable systems. 

These are just a few of the individuals and organizations that have informed our approach – there are many others who are building new possibilities for journalism. Helping people understand and assess opportunities for change, developing nuanced ideas of impact, challenging oppressive systems, elevating marginalized narratives, and bringing people together to collectively define and shift systems toward health and equity—that’s the future of journalism that I see. 

This work would not have been possible without the generous support from the Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation, and the many systems thinkers and changemakers that have laid the foundation for our practice.