Systems Thinking Wisdom

Everything That’s Wrong With the News

I hate reading the news. It fails to educate. It loves sharing the bad and sensational, and doesn’t empower me to do anything to fix these issues. It obsesses over characters rather than the systems they are a part of. It always needs to have something new to say without really saying anything (I suppose that’s why it’s called the “new”-s). It tells stories of yesterday’s events, forgetting that these behaviors happen time and time again in history. And worst of all, the news industry for the most part seems satisfied by its own mediocrity.  My past attempts to devote time toward staying “up-to-date” with current events often end up leaving me frustrated, wondering how I spent so much time trying to learn and still have a very shallow understanding of the systems around me.

I’d much rather watch House of Cards – at least I know that’s a guaranteed hour of satisfaction. Sometimes I forget how bad the news is, and get lured back in when I hear coworkers talking about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. As if it would be less shallow today. Other times I lament at how so few people seem to devote time to educating themselves about public policy decisions in our so-called Democracy, and I make the mistake of blaming individuals rather than the system itself – the system of daily news that props itself up from the advertising revenue brought in via mouse clicks – where quantity matters more than quality.

After I learned about Systems Thinking, I realized why I had such a problem with frontpage writing. I had been devoting time to reading “current” events when what I was really interested in was something deeper – the behaviors and recurring patterns in society. Cause and effect, knowledge that doesn’t become obsolete next month, holistic representations of how things got this way over time.

The news is full of surprises because it’s oriented toward current events, and because people have limited knowledge or understanding of the underlying dynamics. It’s like trying to understand a person by his current appearance and his actions this past week; you’d get much more if you knew his goals and aspirations, his greatest influences and key setbacks throughout the course of his life, his paradigms and his key patterns of behavior exhibited over many years.

If you grasp systems, you recognize that surprises demonstrate how little awareness people have about the deeper problems boiling beneath the surface. An employee suddenly quits. A natural disaster strikes a region and the government is poorly prepared to deal with the logistics. Teachers go on strike in Chicago. A politician is exposed in a corruption scandal. All of these surprises are events whose time has come after underlying system mechanics build up. They are not just isolated stories.

There are two things I wish the news would do better for me, and I bet there will be many products addressing these problems in the next few years:

1) Curation – It doesn’t curate for me the most high priority pieces I should read today if I have, say, 15 minutes of time to spare while waiting for my bus to arrive. The curated product should take into account my specific interests (and how granular my interests are within a larger topic) and the information I already know and don’t need to reread. A smart news service would also recognize the areas where I have information gaps so that I don’t attempt to engage with a foreign policy article without first reading a primer. Today, a visit to the homepage of a news website feels like an invitation to be distracted – 15 minutes of shallow perusings. I am hopeful about the direction that news avenues such as Vox are going with their “Everything You Need to Know About…” and “Understanding the News” pieces that at least orient the news to be about learning and not just sharing stories.

2) Quality Without Quantity – I often find that I can get either quality or brevity, but not both. I can choose to read the short frontpage news with very low quality (quality is defined as the ability to explain systems rather than the details of particular events), or I can read high quality longform essays that I really don’t have the time to read.

Do People Really Care?

If what people share on their social networks are an indication of what people believe to be news-worthy, then we have reason to be concerned.  The Atlantic’s columnist Derek Thompson wrote that “the stories and videos most likely to be shared, emailed, and posted on Facebook aren’t necessarily the newest stories, but they are the most evocative..” Last week, I was linked to a youtube video of a romantic Lip Dub wedding proposal and found myself rewatching 29/31, and willingly diverted my attention away from researching labor unions for my next blog post. And now I’m diverting your attention because it’s so much easier to link to a funny Youtube video than to search for a well-written article covering something more serious. So maybe consumers are to blame for our gossipping natures, too ready to accept and then share the “here and now” story or feel-good clip.  We’re inundated by new content, and our ADD-inflicted brains forget that learning anything substantial requires focus and not sporadic clicks.  And maybe we are mentally fatigued because learning actually requires us to think and question when it’s so much easier to passively consume after a long day at work.

Thompson continues, “[Our most successful stories on Facebook] are what journalists call “evergreen” stories—essays about diets, Millennials, and happiness, studies on coffee and decision-making, or beautiful photos.” In early 2013, Andrew and I kept hearing about our U.S. government facing a “budget sequester” (massive across-the-board cuts to government services) in the media, so we decided to research how the New York Times front page reported on that topic. Yet on February 28, 2013, the day before the sequester was to take place, the most searched terms on the New York TImes website were “Mediterranean diet” and “junk food”.  Below is a list of the top 10 most e-mailed articles during the 30 days preceding March 8 (3 weeks before the sequester through one week after).

  1. Mediterranean Diet Shown to Ward Off Heart Attack and Stroke

  2. The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

  3. Relax! You’ll Be More Productive

  4. Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?

  5. Straining to Hear and Fend Off Dementia

  6. It’s the Sugar, Folks

  7. Who Has the Guts for Gluten?

  8. Julian Fellowes Discusses a Season of Comings and Goings at “Downton Abbey”

  9. Bark Up or Down? Firewood Splits Norwegians

  10. Why Four Workouts a Week May Be Better Than Six

The sequester did manage to win a spot on the frontpage every day and we read every piece. Unsurprisingly, we were disappointed – the writers chose to tell stories rather than teach systems. We saw numerical figures about spending cuts with no meaningful explanations about the relative size of these cuts (what does 1 billion mean at the government level?) and the impact they would have on various population groups, although we did see the repeated generalization that Democrats would be unhappy about cuts to social services. Many articles spoke of political strategy and who would take the blame for a government shutdown in this warfield, labeled as a “cease-fire” and “showdown” in the news. We also observed that the web interface was not designed for educational exploration – if a reader didn’t understand the budget process, or what “sequester” means, or the distribution of federal spending into various departments, the news didn’t attempt to teach. We found that some of the most informative articles were in the Opinion section – biased, but at least they attempted to explore the sequester topic in greater depth.

People Care, But…

The story I’d like to believe is that people are extremely curious and interested in learning about systemic issues but feel demotivated for the same reasons as me. Most content sucks. Understanding an issue in depth requires much effort to collect viewpoints and data from various interest groups. There isn’t a correlation between knowledge of a subject and influence to change systems because you don’t win debates by being the one person who has thoroughly researched a problem compared to the many who readily accept the views presented to them. Public opinion is too easily swayed by smart marketing tactics. Being a responsible, knowledgeable citizen can be exhausting.

Yet there is great journalism out there. I’ve read high quality pieces exploring topics like homelessness, abortion, and college sports. Good content will reach those who spend the time looking for it, but we each only have so much willpower and cognitive space to engage with complex problems after a hard day’s work.  In a world where people have diminishing attention spans, limited interest in understanding issues in depth, and limited leisure time, we get low quality news  where it pays to be entertaining rather than informative. Even more alarming are recent findings that show even educated people tend to look for information and data that conforms to their pre-existing views.  In other words, being well-read makes us better at arguing our side but not necessarily better at understanding all aspects of a system.

So How Do We Learn?

If you want to learn about systems, first be realistic – it is near impossible to understand all complex systems without spending ample time and having access to significant context. Therefore, be very intentional and strategic about how you learn about systems, starting with a small subset of them first. Recognize your paradigms and be ready to catch yourself when you find yourself too eager to agree with someone similar to you and unwilling to give a chance to the opposition’s arguments.

The late Donella Meadows describes paradigms as the deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. She writes...

“These beliefs are unstated because it is unnecessary to state them—everyone already knows them. Money measures something real and has real meaning; therefore, people who are paid less are literally worth less. Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo sapiens. One can “own” land. Those are just a few of the paradigmatic assumptions of our current culture, all of which have utterly dumbfounded other cultures, who thought them not the least bit obvious.”

Turn off the tv – even The Daily Show and Colbert Report. These are comedic shows masked as informative television that actually reinforce your current beliefs. Don’t bother reading the news unless you want to acquire shallow talking points and lose valuable time. The news runs on a daily cycle and its objective is to tell you what it hears as quickly as possible; fact corrections happen later, and there isn’t enough time to thoroughly analyze what it just reported. Magazines like The Economist and The New Yorker, which run on weekly cycles, do a much better job at fitting recent events into the bigger picture story.

Choose a system you want to learn about for this next month. Let’s say U.S. K-12 public education.

Step 1 – Skim the System

Identify the key issues and sides in the U.S. public education debate – wikipedia and a night of googling will help you get a good list going. Write down the buzz words you see often – teachers union, charter schools, No Child Left Behind, Race To the Top, Common Core State Standards, PISA, Waiting for Superman, etc.  Try to understand in as little time as possible, what the key words mean and how they relate to each other. Start grouping the key words into relevant categories – such as government acts, types of schools, key individuals, and divisive issues. Identify the key personalities and individuals – Michelle Rhee, Whitney Tilson, Joel Klein, Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, Wendy Kopp. Reading about their views will help you quickly collect the main issues up for debate.

Step 2 – Narrow down the issues/Map It

Identify the key pieces of the system that cause disagreement, where peoples’ values are different. At some point, you will have recognized there are key disagreements about teacher tenure, the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, the use of technology in classrooms, and the growth of charter schools. Explore how the various positions on these issues impact the larger system. I will often begin googling topics with associations to journals with systemic writing – “teachers union economist” or “teachers union new yorker” and begin reading the articles that appear. Always remember that there is another side to the story.

Step 3 – Define the problem

What is actually wrong with the system? What is the ultimate goal that is not being accomplished? Is it that U.S. students are performing worse than they used to? Or perhaps they are doing better but in absolute terms, have never been good enough. Are American students’ international ranks falling each year and why does that matter? Are we spending exponentially more on public school education (per-pupil spending) but not seeing any results? Do you care about the problem that the public is concerned with and if so, can you find data that confirms that the problem exists?

The above are basic steps that can help you get more understanding per hour spent reading. They only scratch the surface, however, because you also need to check the facts that you read and return to ideas at a later point in time to re-evaluate if you still believe them to be true after having acquired more knowledge. An important advantage of initiating this type of focused learning is that now you can calibrate most of what gets said whether in the daily news or by your opinionated friends and now be able to assess others’ ignorance or thoughtfulness on the topic.

If you have the time and interest, read/watch investigative pieces representing multiple viewpoints and research who the storyteller is in each case. The more I read, the more I acknowledge the complexity of the system. I sometimes redefine the problem, and I am always reminded that there is no such thing as having enough context.

And we haven’t even gotten to applying a systems thinking framework to the disparate pieces of knowledge acquired in the above steps. It helps to understand common archetypes because you’ll start seeing these everywhere, universal in all systems. Learn the threshold concepts of systems thinking – reinforcing and balancing loops, the power of delays, the concepts of resilience and self-organization, the fact that the whole system is greater than the sum of its parts, that subsystems have their own goals within greater systems, that we are all victims of bounded rationality, the power of unintended consequences, and..okay you get the point.

Finally, I want to reiterate a stream of consciousness that my wise co-blogger Andrew wrote:

People too often wield knowledge for manipulation rather than illumination. The media delivers a constant stream of absolutes, certainties and one-sidedness. Instead, we believe in the power of understanding the underlying systems that surround us and drive change in our world. We believe that all people have the capacity to cultivate the intrinsic wisdom that lies in the ability to question deeply, assert bravely and revise themselves freely. We value teachers over masterminds, learners over followers. We believe that we must all take ownership of our moments and problems and think creatively about how to interpret and respond to them: this is about systems and us.

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2 thoughts on “Everything That’s Wrong With the News

  1. Good thoughts Jenny. I concur about the “new-s” and share your frustration with how shallow it mostly is. Like you, I search for deeper articles on topics that interest me, and have somewhat solved the issue using a few aggregate services like Flipboard and News360. It may take me a few minutes to find stories that interest me, but at least I’m able to look in industries or sections that appeal to me. Also, being upset by the news networks is a bit like shaking your fists at the sun. They are what they are and nothing will change them, except if the lowest common denominators among us increase their intelligence and attention span.

  2. I just finished reading Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On regarding the HIV epidemic and the great influence the media had in not spreading awareness and knowledge about the disease. For years, the government, media and many scientists were not in support of fighting the epidemic simply because it affected a “minority” group – gays. Only heterosexual cases would be reported in the media initially simply because that’s what people wanted to hear about. The book made me ask, “What group is being marginalized right now that lives in the shadows of our awareness?” The media is not entirely responsible of course; however, it greatly dictates what people see and want to fight for…

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