Systems Thinking

What El Tímpano learned covering health and housing through a systems lens

In July 2018, my colleagues and I at Journalism + Design led one of our first systems thinking workshops with a group of journalists from media organizations across the Bay Area, convened by our partners at Renaissance Journalism. Madeleine Bair, founding director of El Tímpano, was among the participants who spent the day using tools from systems thinking to generate ideas for reporting on the local housing crisis. 

A few months after, Bair sent me pics of feedback loops – a way to visualize patterns at play in a particular system – that she’d created to help her unpack a story she was working on. We were extremely excited to see the tools we’d introduced at the workshop getting used independently. 

Fast forward to September 2020. El Tímpano received a grant from Renaissance Journalism for a reporting project on how overcrowded housing affects the health and well-being of Latino and Mayan immigrants in Oakland. Bair enlisted J+D to help embed a systems practice into the reporting process, and together we gathered input from key stakeholders to create a systems map of the forces, policies and conditions that fuel overcrowding and health disparities. You can learn more about our process here.

Our work together helped inform a series of in-depth stories from El Tímpano, the latest of which was reported and just broadcast in partnership with Latino USA. Nearly two years after we first began collaborating on this project, I sent Bair a series of questions to get her take on how systems thinking had informed the reporting project and the organization’s ongoing coverage, and what other journalists can learn from her experience. 

Cole Goins: Why did you feel like the intersection of overcrowded housing and public health was particularly ripe for focusing your reporting on the more systemic forces at play? What were you hoping to do differently with this project? 

Madeleine Bair: These are two immense issues—the prevalence of overcrowded housing among low-income immigrants, and racial disparities in health outcomes—that seem so ingrained in our nation that they are rarely examined in news coverage through a systems lens. It’s like we—as a society, and as journalists—take them for granted, without questioning what contributes to them and what it would take to move the needle. 

With COVID-19, the intersection between housing, health, economic opportunity, and political power  became devastatingly clear. Between the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, there was a hunger on the part of the public to unpack the systems and policies that led to the racial disparities we were seeing and experiencing. To me, that seemed like not only an opportunity, but a mandate for us as journalists to go deep in helping our communities understand the structures, systems, and policies at play in our communities, and what it would take to change them if we wanted to see different outcomes, if we wanted to build more equitable and healthy communities.

With this project, we wanted to peel back the layers and ask, how is overcrowding contributing to high rates of COVID-19 among Latino immigrants? Why are so many Latino immigrants living in overcrowded conditions? What are some of the underlying political and social structures that are contributing to the health disparities and housing insecurity that we’re seeing?

And we wanted to probe these questions not from an academic perspective but, like all of El Tímpano’s work, in collaboration with the communities of Latino immigrants that El Tímpano covers and serves. 

Goins: Throughout the reporting process, we collaborated on a series of systems thinking tools such as developing a “North Star” for the project,  mapping the core stakeholders connected to the issue and creating a visual systems map. What parts of the process did you find most helpful or illuminating for the reporting you’ve done? 

Bair: Creating and visualizing a systems map was eye-opening. From the complex map we created, we could see how intertwined various economic and political structures are with health disparities, and could understand clearly the interplay between factors like immigration status, job opportunities, housing, language access, political power, access to vaccines and tests, and more. We could see how changing one piece of the system, such as immigration policy, would have an incredible ripple effect in the outcomes we were seeing play out in real time during the pandemic. 

I recall meetings we held with fellow local journalists, or with local advocates, walking them through this map, and they remarked that even though they were familiar with many of the relationships it displayed, seeing them mapped out as an interconnected system was clarifying.  

Goins: What was the most challenging part of applying a systems practice to this reporting project?

Bair: It definitely took longer! In a way, the process was like an investigative reporting project, but rather than examining patterns in data, we were examining patterns in stories, and relationships within systems, and organizing them in a way that made sense and was true to the lived experiences of the communities we cover and serve. Learning about and creating “feedback loops” from our reporting was akin to putting a puzzle together. It was at times mentally grueling, but with a lot of aha moments.  

Goins: You’ve reported several stories on housing and health among Latino immigrants in Oakland that stemmed from your original focus on overcrowding. How did this emphasis on systems affect the way you told those stories?

Bair: The process has impacted El Tímpano’s coverage in ways big and small. You can see in all of our coverage a framing that connects the dots between different systems and structures at play. For example, Héctor Arzate’s article in early 2021 about the financial distress of undocumented immigrants could have been a relatively simple story about the accumulation of debt and the essentials that residents have gone without. But his article touches upon multiple factors impacting the situation of undocumented immigrants, including landlords violating renter protections, and the economic crisis pushing people into more overcrowded conditions, which then led to COVID-19 outbreaks. In a story like that, you don’t need to explain the systems map to your audience; simply being aware of it as a newsroom helps us illuminate those relationships in our coverage. 

Goins: Practices like creating a working systems map takes a fair amount of time and energy. Considering industry deadlines and constraints, what parts of this approach can you see integrated into your regular work and process?

Bair: Yes, creating a systems map of the issues you cover is a big lift for a newsroom. That said, newsroom leaders need to ask ourselves what we want our coverage to accomplish. For years, outlets have told the same stories ad nauseum, without moving civic conversations forward with an examination of why the same stories keep happening. It may not be the priority of all newsrooms, but we want El Tímpano’s coverage to foster deeper understanding of the inequities we cover. It is worth the investment of time to widen our lens and strengthen our capacity to report on the systems underlying the issues we cover and the stories our community brings to our attention.  

Of course, there are certainly aspects of systems thinking that we have integrated into our process and reporting on a regular basis. One is simply asking questions that search for opportunities and obstructions for change. Even in a reporting format like El Tímpano’s series of first-person narratives, these questions can provide incredible insight. In the story of Emilia Zarate, for example, a mother of two who was laid off during the pandemic, asking such questions allowed for Ms. Zarate to explain the barriers that have stood in the way of her accessing financial assistance—barriers that El Tímpano wound up later publishing an in-depth report on

Goins: Any other lessons or insights you’d share with journalists who want to more actively incorporate a systems practice into their reporting?

Bair: Yes! You don’t need a big grant or a partnership with Journalism + Design to incorporate systems thinking into your newsroom’s coverage. The team at J+D has put together a really easy-to-follow toolkit that walks you through the steps we took to apply systems thinking in our coverage of health and housing. I encourage reporters or newsroom leaders to take a look, and when you are starting to embark on coverage that would benefit from a systems lens, carve out some time for the reporting team to go through some of the exercises together. Even if it’s just one exercise – like creating feedback loops of the patterns your reporting is uncovering – it will deepen your understanding of the systems at play, and help you illuminate and examine those systems in your coverage.