Systems Thinking & Journalism: Sketchy Notes

This week, I went to this small two-day workshop for journalists to learn about Systems Thinking, and to figure out how to apply it to their own work! Here are my messy sketch-notes, with some personal reflections.


Good news & bad news – they skimmed over the basics of Systems Thinking. I already knew a lot about it, so I got a lot out of the workshop, but the other journalists in the room who were totally new to the concept may have been lost. So, before I get into my notes + reflections, here’s my quick intro to what Systems Thinking is, by contrasting it to the conventional mindset:

CONVENTIONAL THINKING: linear cause-and-effect
(A causes B causes C, and so on)

SYSTEMS THINKING: nonlinear cause-and-effect
(A affects B, but B can also affect A. That is, feedback loops – like the vicious cycle of an arms race, or the balancing forces of ecosystems)

And Systems Thinking peeps also usually use visual diagrams to map these feedback loops. For example, here’s one on drug use, mental health, and criminal justice: (the Snowballs are loops that compound/reinforce something, the Seesaws are loops that bring back balance)


But this nonlinearity makes these kinds of systems hard to analyze (with traditional methods), since there no longer is any one “root” cause, if all things can affect all things. Lotsa systems are like this – political, economic, societal, etc… all ripe topics for a journalist to pick apart!

Alright, now with that super-short intro out of the way, here’s a two-page summary of my sketch-notes from the workshop:

first page

First page:
How to tell stories about systems, or stories with systems.

  • Start with a concrete human story, then expand outwards to the whole system.
  • How do you tell a nonlinear story with a linear medium (like text, film, audio)? One good example is The Wire. One could also use nonlinear mediums like comics (e.g. Chris Ware) or interactive stories/videogames.
  • Systems have “plot twists”: like how surprisingly quickly a feedback loop can spiral out of control.
  • At the philosophical, emotional core of system-stories: empathy. Individuals may have noble motives, but are constrained by the system. “None are to blame, but all are responsible.”

second page

Second page:
How to use Systems Thinking to positively affect the world!

  • “You don’t fix systems. You can only evolve & influence ‘em, so they can change themselves.”
  • In Foreign Aid: “implanting” a foreign fix is like taping flowers onto a tree, instead of helping the tree grow its own flowers.
  • How To Influence, But Not Control: Show positive examples that counter bad trends. Show them things that resonate, or “go viral”. Give ‘em the tools to help themselves, then back off.
  • In Conflict Mediation: (one of the instructors is a conflict mediator and peacemaker) Get input from diverse people. Get all sides to stop blaming each other, and instead, show them how the system is their common enemy. And positively reinforce and highlight moderates, and people who cross-cut different groups.

At the end of the workshop, we also had a group discussion on how to apply Systems Thinking to journalism, in practice and in teaching curriculum:


There you have it, the workshop summarized into three pages of notes! I did take more sketch-notes with my own personal reflections, but I worry maybe they’re too idiosyncratic, or don’t have enough context attached. But hey, I’ll post them here anyway:


(as an Imgur album)

Other, Overall Personal Reflections:

See this essay I wrote a while back, The Science of Social Change. On real empathy, and how we activists are doing things wrong.

  • I think what resonates with me most is the idea that good people can be trapped in a bad system. The idea that most people have fair – sometimes noble – reasons for doing what they’re doing. That’s real empathy.
  • Project-wise, I’m most interested in interactive art & simulations – and systems thinking can help a lot with that! Instead of just a static causal-loop diagram, maybe there’s a way to make it interactive, to be able to ask “what if” hypothetical questions, and find paths to change the world’s systems?
  • The two instructors are peacemakers / conflict mediators. That kind of task inspires me. Since I’m now in journalism and the US Election 2016 is highlighting how polarized we are, maybe Systems Thinking can help all sides see that their enemies aren’t each other – but rather, they have a common enemy: the system? (Can’t we all just get along?!...)

For a less messy and far better introduction to Systems Thinking, here’s the book that got me started down this path: Thinking In Systems, by Dona Meadows. I also made an interactive explainer of systems thinking… using emoji: Simulating The World (In Emoji 😘)

If you're an educator, journalist, or just a curious person, Systems Thinking can really help you a lot. Hope these messy notes could be a good introduction for you!