Three ways The Baltimore Sun used systems thinking to deepen their reporting on child support

This post was originally prepared as a lightning chat for Gather, a platform by the Agora Journalism Center to support community-minded journalists. Watch the live chat here (requires registration). 

In early March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic caused shutdowns across the U.S., The Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger published a series of stories that she’d been thinking about for more than five years: an investigation into how the city’s child support system fractures families

Over the course of nine months, Wenger had worked alongside data journalist Christine Zhang and photographer Lloyd Fox to chronicle the policies that drive fathers deeper into debt and often into the underground economy. She wanted to document how structural racism shows up across the child support system and the vast hurdles that fathers face. 

Wenger centered her reporting around fathers because talk about child support reform has historically focused on mothers, the custodial parents. She says she wanted to explore what wasn’t working from the side of the noncustodial parents, who are almost always the father.

“It was complicated and messy and the most ambitious undertaking of my nearly 20-year newspaper career,” Wenger said. 

Early in the process, members of the Journalism + Design team worked with Wenger and her editor Diana Sugg on a series of exercises from our systems thinking toolkit to help the Sun reporting team unpack how the child support system functions and identify opportunities for reform. Our team had been leading workshops to help newsrooms use systems thinking in their reporting, and we were eager to work directly with journalists to implement these approaches on a long-term project. 

Here are three systems thinking tools that we used with the Sun through a series of workshops and conversations in the newsroom and online, and how they impacted the team’s investigation into child support. 

Tool #1: Identify key stakeholders and their information needs 

We started our work with the Sun by leading a stakeholder mapping exercise with the team, generating a list of all the different people and actors who are involved in, or affected by, the child support system in some way. 

Taking a page from human-centered design, we believe it’s critical for journalists to center reporting around the people and communities their journalism serves. Generating a diverse list of stakeholders from the very beginning can help guide your reporting, ensure that the unique information needs of the different kinds of stakeholders are being met, and draw from a variety of perspectives and insights to get a full understanding of how the system functions. 

Here’s an example of what we created with Yvonne and Diana using a tool called Stormboard. It’s not just a list of people in the system, but different communities, those directly and indirectly affected, those who hold a lot of power, all categorized and clustered.

Wenger says mapping the stakeholders changed her reporting process. It offered a wide-lens view of the system, a chance to brainstorm an array of potential sources, and allowed for a deeply reported final product. 

“Often as reporters, we’re working at such a rapid pace that we can’t or don’t step back to identify the universe of sources,” Wenger said. “Doing so can elevate any story by showing the interconnectedness of a system. It can also cause the media to deliberately identify voices that are often overlooked.”

Your stakeholders are sources that help you learn more about how the system functions. Plus, this process can also help journalists see their newsrooms as a convenors of conversations.. 

As Wenger found in her reporting, people often work in silos—one department or official may not be fully aware of work that’s being done by another department or community group, which can lead to inefficiencies and unintended consequences. 

What would it look like if journalists brought people together from across a system to host conversations about how to improve it?  The pandemic derailed the Sun’s plans to help convene people across in the child support system after the story launched, but Wenger says she wants to build greater buy-in in the newsroom for hosting impact-oriented conversations with stakeholders in the future. 

Tool #2: Map your story as a system

After getting an understanding of the many different people and organizations who are connected to child support, we created a visual map of the system, identifying the forces and factors that shape how it functions. 

This process is a quintessential systems thinking tool. This exercise offers an easy way to brainstorm the many different elements and connections that comprise and drive the system you’re covering.  Visualizing the system can help journalists go beyond focusing on individual parts of a complex issue such as child support, and invite more nuance in your reporting by looking for connections you may not have noticed before. 

The mapping process asks: “What are the forces and elements that contribute to, or are affected by, your topic?”

Here’s a look at the forces we surfaced with Wenger and her team. You can see the different forces, policies, power dynamics, belief systems, and elements that are contributing to how child support works as it does. 

Wenger says this analysis helped reveal patterns and traps in the child support system for fathers who wanted to contribute financially to raising their children but could not afford to pay what the system had decided they owed.

“With the help of my editor Diana, this deep examination lent itself to ‘front-end’ editing, which is the process of talking through a story and narrowing your focus, or angle,” Wenger said. “This helped me set priorities and figure out which part of the massive system The Sun believed would be most constructive to focus on.”

Dedicating months to deep research into the child support system, Wenger amassed an impressive amount of material. The visualization allowed the reporting team to identify the ways in which structural racism and the criminalization of poverty were threaded throughout the system. The visual also documented where it showed up, such as judges’ routine practice of setting child support orders based on “imputed” income amounts for fathers who are unemployed. Stepping back to analyze the system for the exercise allowed us to see the forces at work.

Creating a systems map on your own or with your colleagues can be a powerful visual to generate ideas for your reporting. However, the maps are limited by your own knowledge and experiences, so don’t expect your map to be comprehensive on its own. Inviting more input on the map from stakeholders you’re reporting on, and adding to the map as you learn more about the system can help expand the map, test its validity, and make it a dynamic, living document.

Tool #3: Uncover patterns in your story

When we create visualizations of how systems function, we can start to see the patterns that drive them. 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 operate.

After we generated a rich list of forces in the child support system, we worked together to identify how these forces connect and the key patterns at play. This process can help you identify core feedback loops that are at the heart of a problem you’re reporting on. 

Here are two loops that we made with Wenger and her team during our mapping sessions. The first, “ripple effects of license suspension,” walks through a few of the traps that fathers get stuck in because unpaid child support often leads to their driver’s licenses being revoked. This causes cycles of unemployment, debt, and income and housing insecurity. 

Zooming out, we can see another loop of the government’s practices that keep the child support system functioning as it does. When women and mothers sign up for public benefits like Temporary Cash Assistance, they are required to list the father of their children. When these fathers pay child support, rather than going to the women, it instead goes to the government to recoup the costs of the women’s benefits. As Wegner reported in her story, “Until recently, as long as a mother and children were receiving welfare, Maryland claimed the entire child support payment by the noncustodial father to replenish government coffers.” This shows how, from the government’s perspective, they’re seeing a return on investment, Wegner said, thus justifying the system.

Here is the full systems map we created from the forces we identified. You can see how two loops that seem to exist on different plains interact here to make the system operate as it does.

We created these loops after Wenger was about six months into her reporting process. She says it helped her organize a lot of the material that she had collected and pushed her to think differently about the story. 

Looking for feedback loops also helped Wenger and her colleagues think about how certain forces in the system serve as traps that pull men and families deeper into debt. 

Looking at feedback loops helped identify one of the biggest opportunities for system change that Wegner identified in her story: how judges could set child support orders to work for the lowest income fathers and, in turn, for mothers and children.

“We could see how the forces—or traps, as we came to call them—were interconnected,” Wenger said. “Each would drive a father who couldn’t afford to pay what the system decided was due further underground and further from his family. We could see visually how one action affects another.”

How to use systems thinking in your newsroom

Want to try these tools for a story, project or beat that you’re working on? Our systems thinking toolkit offers a range of exercises that you can try on your own or with your colleagues that can help you better understand the systems at play in your reporting. 

If you’re a reporter beginning a new project or story, try our quick tool, Visualizing the System, and learn a new way to think about the forces and ideas driving the system. 

You can also create a guiding vision for your reporting and work your way through each exercise in the order they’re presented. 
If you’re a reporter or editor looking for new angles for your beat, you can try Mapping the System. This tool (#2 in our post here) can help you understand the different forces and factors that fuel the issue you’re reporting on, and look for new connections to explore.