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Systems Thinking In the Media

by Andrew Frangos and Jenny Zhou

Below is a paper we submitted to the 2013 System Dynamics Conference.

Motivation

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.

In late 2012, my friend Andrew and I decided to read the frontpage New York Times newspaper every day. We wanted to understand how the NYT represented the big topic of that time - The Budget Sequester of 2013. What would a typical American actually learn from reading about the sequester? How systemic would their understanding be? We wrote the following paper looking at how the mainstream media informs and where its limitations are. How well does the news serve a role of educating readers, and if not, how might news be redesigned to accomplish this?

If most adults stop learning after school, then doesn’t the news have a very important role of educating people? How do we revise our beliefs and understanding of problems in an industry dominated by short-term events over of patterns of behavior, characters over systems, facts and figures over ratios and rates of change, information over the examination of goals and purpose?

Photo by Namphuong Van