We Need a Better Way

In this blog entry I pull three insight from three different places: two from systems thinkers, and one from social psychologists, and make a case for a desperate need for a better way to ‘help our society to sense and see itself.’ I include a look at where and how to intervene in a system, both from Theory U and Donella Meadows, and conclude with a short list of related resources for readers wanting to learn more.

How to Change a System

In the fall of 2017, I attended an in-person Theory U training on the East Coast. (This was back when travel and gathering in-person were relatively safe and normal activities.) As sometimes happens with wide bodies of knowledge, the live presentation by Otto Scharmer, founder of Theory U and the Presencing Institute, coalesced some key nuggets I had not *quite* grokked from the books. One of those nuggets serves as the jumping-off point for this blog:

“If you want to understand a system, try to change it.” (Kurt Lewin)

“If you want to change a system, you have to raise the level of consciousness in the system.” (Otto Scharmer)

“If you want to raise the level of consciousness in a system, you have to help the system to sense and see itself.” (Otto Scharmer)

(For a description of these three points by Otto himself, view 13:30 – 16:40 of this YouTube video.)

First, I found this triumvirate arresting. Helping the system to “sense and see itself” has become an ongoing meditation for me.

But almost immediately I began a reverie on media. “Isn’t that supposed to be the role of the media? To help our society to sense and see itself?” (By this I was imagining news coverage, though clearly all forms of media serve a reflective and therefore feedback function.)

Later I combined this question with another key insight, this time from Donella Meadows. In Thinking In Systems: A Primer, Donella asks us to consider–carefully–the “purpose” of any given system. She warns, “Purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals” (pg 14, Thinking In Systems: A Primer).

Together these ideas paint a disturbing picture of news media, and disturbing implications for the future of our democracy.

The Purpose of Media is Profit

It could scarcely be more clear that the purpose of our current media system is profit. The for-profit corporation is the dominant entity in publishing and programing, whether we’re talking about newspapers, radio, television, or billboards. (See this blog entry for more details about profit versus human well-being as a purpose.) Social media and streaming services are perhaps the most obvious examples of for-profit entities in media. According to this 2020 article on techstartups.com, 90% of media in the United States is owned by six corporations (six corporations and 15 individuals). The Wikipedia article “Concentration of media ownership” further illustrates this long-running trend.

With the partial exception of publicly-funded media (even pubic stations are forced to sell ad space), advertising is the life blood of media, no matter the medium, and this means “news” as well. Did I say “blood”? Incidentally, while researching information for this blog, I stumbled on an entertaining–if disturbing–aphorism of news anchors: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

The Negativity Bias

In addition to the Theory U statement and the question of “purpose” from Donella, here is a third crucial element.

The “negativity bias” is a theory that examines the tendency for negative events and information to stick in our heads more powerfully than positive events and information. (Typical examples include people recalling more negative than positive events from childhood, or our tendency to dwell on an off-color comment someone made at work in the midst of an otherwise positive day.)

If the product you are selling is “news,” it makes sense that you would be sure to focus on the negative in order to capture more eyes, ears and clicks. The word “sensationalism” applies here.

Below are the three pieces of my argument. They are pulled from disparate places and therefore they don’t hang together language-wise so much as conceptually:

1. The purpose (or priority or goal) of our current media system–of special concern, news media–is profit

2. A desire to “help the system to sense and see itself” for positive systems change

3. The potency of negative information far and above positive (or neutral) information

With regard to this last one, a brief aside to note that the “potency” is not negligible; see “doomscrolling.”

What Went Wrong

A typical news cast portrays mountains of “what-went-wrong.” The news anchors articulate what-went-wrong in example after example, often repeating and reiterating the worst–i.e., most sensational–bits. In the thrall of profit-driven news media, we are constantly making our communities “conscious” of what is wrong, and overlooking what is going well, which is at least as important.

This non-stop bad-news-drip has profound consequences for our lives, and for the future of democracy. Meadows herself comments on media:

Examples of bad human behavior are held up, magnified by the media, affirmed by the culture, as typical‚ĶThe far more numerous examples of human goodness are barely noticed. They are “not news.” (pg 184, Thinking In Systems: A Primer)

Psychology Today cites the following conditions resulting from, or exacerbated by, this tendency to blast ourselves with bad information:

It’s been said that fear-based media has become a staple of popular culture. The distressing fall-out from this trend is that children and adults who are exposed to media are more likely than others to:
– Feel that their neighborhoods and communities are unsafe
– Believe that crime rates are rising
– Overestimate their odds of becoming a victim
– Consider the world to be a dangerous place (Ref)

Looking at the Psychology Today quote I can’t help but wonder, “Who are these mythical ‘others’ who aren’t ‘exposed to media?'” Presuming the data behind this claim is accurate, then I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that profit-driven news outlets are a form of collective brainwashing. The author additionally states:

The success of fear-based news relies on presenting dramatic anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, promoting isolated events as trends, depicting categories of people as dangerous and replacing optimism with fatalistic thinking. (Ref)

As it turns out, the events portrayed in the news media are not at all what we should be focused on if we sincerely want to make the world a better place.

Events Are Not (As) Important

Here we turn to Meadows’ insights about where to intervene in a system. For details I refer you to the talk she gave at Michigan State University (the videos are embedded on this page) from which this information is derived. Meadows takes the revolutionary step of putting “events” in the context of the larger system in which they occur:

If you freeze the system at any one point it’s doing something which is an “event.” This is what we see in the news at night. It’s one snippet of the behavior of a system. And one of the problems with the news at night is it focuses on events…It gives us virtually no understanding of the long-term behavior of systems and why they are doing what they are doing. (Part 1 of 4 10:40- 20:07)

Thumbnail of PDF Donella Meadows Michigan lecture hierarchy of influence

Check out my re-interpretation of Donella’s overhead projector slide (click on the thumbnail to the left to view it). As you will see, “events” are the tail end, the output, the end-of-pipe result from a whole chain of upstream factors. Yet our news media is riveted on events, and blasts them repeatedly across news networks as if they were the most important thing. This is far from reality: far from the reality of what is actually occurring on any given day in our world, and far from the reality of what we should be focused on if we want to contribute positively to remedying bad situations.

“Purpose” Is Important

The chart depicting Meadows’ insights is invaluable to accurately understanding where in a system one can focus. Taking the example of news media, if the “purpose” were to “help the system to sense and see itself,” our news media system would look very difference than it does today. See below for a list of ideas and resources that help you engage the purpose of making the world a better place (as opposed to making other people money) when it comes to media.

So What?

Our current media system is not serving us; it is not serving democracy nor the creation of a sustainable world. It cannot serve us, not as long as the financial sustainability of news outlets are directly dependent on advertising dollars. (The downward spiral is intensified in the case of social media, as this article mentions, Climate fight ‘is undermined by social media’s toxic reports‘.)

The darker view is that our current media system is serving the erosion of democracy, exploitation of the poor, and extraction of every last possible resource. It’s not remotely a coincidence that the same products advertised through toxic media are toxifying our bodies and the environment.

The Importance of Small, Local Media

A brief aside here to put in a plug for small, local media. Small-scale newspapers and radio stations are run by other people–parents, family, neighbors and friends–in your community. The differences between a community newspaper and a newspaper owned by some giant organization located far away are extreme. One relatively small example of how this plays out is explored in this article, “The Hidden Costs of Losing Your City’s Newspaper: Without watchdogs, government costs go up, according to new research.”

To-Do Steps

So what do we do about it? In short:

  1. Patronize small-scale, local media, and fund/subscribe to public media.
  2. Re-wash your brain with good-news outlets, and on a regular basis. (See this list as a place to start.)
  3. Don’t (just don’t!) “watch” the so-called news. Read it, maybe listen, and set a timer when you expose yourself to it as if it were a dangerous gas; the gas of the profit motive.
  4. Avoid social media as much as possible, for bad news and plenty of other reasons. See this article, “A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel.”
  5. Support organization like FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting)

Finally, take this seriously. In my last blog, Systems Thinking and Spirituality, I referenced Eckhart Tolle. One of the key teachings I have taken from Tolle is a point about inner pollution leading to outer pollution. If we pollute our minds and hearts with bad news at the expense of the far more important neutral and good news (especially on a daily basis), we participate in a society-wide downward spiral feedback loop. When you, as Tolle says, “take responsibility for your inner space,” you change the world for the better.