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Lesson | 30-50 minutes

Systems Thinking


systems thinking

This resource from the Journalism + Design Lab supports more people to participate in their local news ecosystems through curriculum and other programs.

Students will use the iceberg model to understand how to trace individual events to larger policies, structures, and ideas. By going beyond surface-level understanding, students can help their communities understand the structures and ideas that drive news stories.

Students can analyze existing articles or their own stories using this model, identifying patterns, collective beliefs, assumptions, ideas, and worldviews that support systems.


News coverage is often dominated by reporting on current events—a protest, a murder, a policy, the government's response to a pandemic, etc.

When we take a step back, we can provide​ context for the events we cover, and illuminate the systems* at play. We have the opportunity to highlight and question the policies, forces, beliefs, and power dynamics that are fueling our most entrenched problems.

Systems thinking is a set of tools and framework for understanding complex issues and opportunities to change them.

*NOTE - according to Journalism + Design, a system is defined as: a set of interconnected and dynamic forces that have a collective function or purpose. Examples: the court system, social service networks, a freshwater lake, a group of friends


Use the Iceberg model worksheet to visualize the systems in news articles and your reporting.

The iceberg model is a tool to help you contextualize the individual events you're reporting on and trace the underlying patterns, structures, and ideas that perpetuate them.


  • Trace how individual events are connected to larger policies, structures, ideas, and systems
  • Think about ways your reporting can add additional context for events you're covering
  • Consider how your reporting can help people better address systemic problems.

STEP 1: Pick an event to explore

Pick an event that you're focusing on in your reporting. Write it at the top of your iceberg.

Step 2: Brainstorm trends + patterns

  • What are the trends + patterns driving this event or issue?
  • What has been happening over time?
  • What data or research can I point to that relates to this issue?
  • How does this event connect to similar experiences?

Step 3: Identify the system's structure

  • What specific policies are fueling the trends or patterns?
  • Who is benefitting from the system as it is, and how do they benefit? Who is being harmed and how are the structures perpetuating that harm?
  • What are the institutional rules and practices that are driving these patterns?

Step 4: Surface mental models

  • What personal assumptions and beliefs do you hold about this topic?
  • What worldviews, beliefs, or ideas shape the policies that you've identified?
  • What are the unspoken assumptions that are necessary for the system to function as it does?

Step 5: Generate ideas for your reporting

  • What would a story look like that addresses each level of the iceberg?
  • How have the mental models shaped the dominant narrative around your beat or topic? Whose voices could you center to challenge or inform them?
  • How can you reorient your beat or reporting approach to focus more deeply on the bottom two layers of the iceberg?
  • Consider the history of this system. What historical context could you provide to help people understand the system as it has been designed? How do race, class, gender and identity play a role?


Journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information.

Source: American Press institute

Journalism Ethics

Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity. Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Source: Society of Professional Journalist Code of Ethics


Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

Source: Lexico, Powered by Oxford


An obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions.

Source: Merriam Webster


Media refers to all electronic or digital means and print or artistic visuals used to transmit messages.

Source: NAMLE

News Media

All forms of media created with the purpose of informing the public and delivering news through specific mediums such as radio and broadcast stations, digital news organizations and others.

Media consumption

The act of consuming any form of media including anything that is text or visual. It can be books, television, papers, flyers, advertisements, newspapers, information on the Internet, etc.


​​A subject or problem that people are thinking and talking about

Source: Cambridge Dictionary


A group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood). It can also be a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.

Source: Merriam Webster

The Framing Effect

In news media, when storytelling presents a “frame” or window into important events or topics.


A simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group; a set form or convention



The condition of having or being composed of differing elements. Especially in the context of the inclusion of people of different races, cultures, etc. in a group or organization

Source: Merriam Webster


The act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability)

Source: Merriam Webster


Immediate, current information and events are newsworthy because they have just recently occurred. It’s news because it’s “new.”


Investigating and explaining, in a critical and clear-eyed way, how people try to solve widely shared problems. Solutions journalism focuses on responses to problems.

Source: Solutions Journalism


Awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation or intuitive cognition. A capacity for comprehension and understanding.

Source: Merriam Webster


People are attracted to information that helps them make good decisions. If you like music, you find musician interviews relevant. If you’re looking for a job, the business news is relevant. We need to depend on relevant information that helps us make decisions.

Story Angle

In news, it’s a story’s point or theme. It's the lens through which the producer or writer filters the information they have gathered and focuses it to make it meaningful to viewers or readers.

Source: ThoughCo.


The people who read, watch and consume news. Often, journalists think about audience and newsworthiness in similar ways. How will the news story serve their local or national audience? Who am I writing the story for and why?


When violence strikes or when people argue about actions, events, ideas or policies, we care. Conflict and controversy attract our attention by highlighting problems or differences within the community or between groups. Sometimes conflict can be subtle and manifest as tension.


The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. A generally definition is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. In media-making, creators can have empathy for their subjects and the audience can empathize with the characters.

News package

Video stories about newsworthy issues and topics, factual information, balanced reporting, research, voice overs, soundbites, b-roll footage, infographics, reporter standup, nats (natural sound bites).

Explainer video

Narration and/or voiceover (VO) with a host, commentary, research, personal experiences, explanations, infographics, nats (natural sound), music, entertainment.


The availability of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid


Something that is known or proved to be true.


A view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.


Something that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.


An investigation into and study of sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.


A source is an individual, company, document or more that can provide information to fuel a new story. In order for a story to be considered verified and to maintain a reputation as a news outlet, it is important to have a credible source.


The process of verifying the accuracy of a piece of information.

Writing - Research to Build and Present Knowledge


Historical understanding requires recognizing this multiplicity of points of view in the past, which makes it important to seek out a range of sources on any historical question rather than simply use those that are easiest to find. It also requires recognizing that perspectives change over time, so that historical understanding requires developing a sense of empathy with people in the past whose perspectives might be very different from those of today. (NCSS D2.His.4.9-12 - D2.His.8.9-12)

Speaking and Listening - Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas

Reading - Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity

Empowered Learner

Students leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving, and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences. (ISTE)

Determining Helpful Sources

Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of view represented in the sources, the types of sources available, and the potential uses of the sources. (NCSS D1.5.9-12)

Historical Sources and Evidence

Historical inquiry is based on materials left from the past that can be studied and analyzed. (NCSS D2.His.9.9-12 - D2.His.13.9-12)

Demonstrate writing processes used in journalism and broadcasting media.

Creative Communicator

Students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals. (ISTE)

Civic and Political Institutions

In order to act responsibly and effectively, citizens must understand the important institutions of their society and the principles that these institutions are intended to reflect. That requires mastery of a body of knowledge about law, politics, and government. (NCSS D2.Civ.1.9-12 - D2.Civ.6.9-12)

Change, Continuity, and Context

At its heart, chronological reasoning requires understanding processes of change and continuity over time, which means assessing similarities and differences between historical periods and between the past and present. (NCSS D2.His.1.9-12 - D2.His.3.9-12)

Gathering and Evaluating Sources

Whether students are constructing opinions, explanation, or arguments, they will gather information from a variety of sources and evaluate the relevance of that information. (NCSS D3.1.9-12 - D3.2.9-12)

Reading - Integration of Knowledge and Ideas



Video Production


Media Literacy


Digital Literacy/Citizenship










Estimated Time

30-50 minutes