21st-Century Journalism | Systems Thinking | Wicked Problems

How Systems Thinking Helps Make Sense of Harvey Weinstein

When the news broke in October 2017 about Harvey Weinstein and his long history of sexual assault and harassment, I wanted to understand the full scope of the problem: How many people were involved in the incidents? Who was complicit in hiding his behavior? Did his actions have repercussions outside of Hollywood?

Since I am a systems thinker working with journalists, I used one of the principle tools of my trade: I decided to map it.

A systems map is a diagram that represents the various forces that shape a complex issue, and the relationships between those forces. Systems thinking is, simply defined, a way of understanding complex issues that allows you to see the whole picture, as well as the parts that make up that whole.

Systems thinkers use conceptual maps to make sense of complexity, and to identify places where a small intervention might make a big change. A systems perspective on the Weinstein story could, I theorized, help me to understand all of the factors involved with his behavior and its consequences. The question I set for myself was, “What forces allowed Harvey Weinstein to get away with it?”

I read story after story, from the initial reports in the New York Times and The New Yorker, to op-eds and news analysis pieces. Each article, a majority of which came from the New York Times, identified various contributing forces: a toxic workplace environment, willful ignorance from Weinstein Company employees, Weinstein’s use of lawyers and PR people to assert his power.

I wrote each force on a separate sticky note and placed them on the wall in my apartment.

Then, I sorted the notes according to the perspective it came from — Weinstein, his employees, actresses, analysts, etc., — based on the reports I read.

A critical part of systems mapping is looking for sequences of cause and effect that eventually create self-sustaining feedback loops. Some feedback loops are virtuous, moving the system towards positive change or outcomes. In the case of Weinstein, they were all vicious, ensuring that his power remained unchecked and his actions went unnoticed or unreported.

As I read these articles about Weinstein, I started grouping and classifying the information into different contextual categories.

For instance, when I read about how executives at the Weinstein Company knew about his actions for years, or how Weinstein wielded his power over gossip magazines and other publications, I grouped those factors together as part of a “Culture of Complicity.”

When I read about how women didn’t speak out about their experiences out of fear or due to NDAs or that bystanders allowed this behavior to go unaddressed because of bribes or fear, I filed those under the larger notion of “Silence.”

In reading about how often women’s voices are not listened to or believed, or how women’s experiences are underrepresented in the media, I grouped those under “Education on Women’s Issues.”

Systems maps use plus and minus signs to explain how changes in one force affect other forces. A stronger Culture of Complicity, for example, leads to an increase in Willful Ignorance, which in turn means more Silence. On my map, these shifts cascaded through other forces, ultimately amplifying the Culture of Complicity.

Using Kumu, an interactive tool for creating systems maps, I drew loop after loop, each from a different perspective, then arranged, labeled, and connected them.  The map made visual sense of how these forces were connected and what sort of system they created.

 While systems thinkers often spend months researching a system, for the purposes of this exercise, I spent only a few weeks on this map. The map may not be very aesthetically pleasing, or as easy to read as a newspaper article. But it does what systems maps are supposed to do: show dynamic relationships among multiple forces and the feedback loops they create. 

As I spent more and more time organizing the chaos, I began to see forces that were missing, as well as identify underlying patterns, such as the link between diversity in the newsroom and what stories get told. It revealed opportunities for further investigation, as well as insight into how the Times story spurred the #MeToo reckoning.

The issues that our world is up against are not simple. They are wicked problems, and wicked problems require both journalists and their readers to look at complex dynamics as well as to reconsider our assumptions about blame and accountability.

My experiment in systems thinking and journalism began as a process of understanding the complex system that keeps men like Weinstein in power.  It also opened up the realm of possibilities in applying systems thinking to journalism in order to explore complex stories.