Design thinking: a better way for journalists to grapple with bias

Could starting with asking what people actually want and need to know from the media be a better way to build trust than feigning “objectivity”?

Allison Dikanovic
Sep 20, 2019 · 5 min read

One of the perks I was most excited about in grad school, especially grad school in New York City, was having special access to people, spaces and events in the media capital of the world. The chance to connect with and join a community of people doing inspiring work was a HUGE reason I wanted to come here. I promised myself I’d embrace the perspective that every person and every situation I encountered was an opportunity to learn something, to expand.

In my first month in New York, I’ve met people who have challenged and broadened my ways of thinking, who have been shining examples of what I aspire to be. But after attending an event on media bias this week, I’m left with the question:

What is there to learn from an event that is a glaring example of what I DO NOT aspire to be?

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to attend a panel at the Paley Center for Media called “Media Bias: Fact of Fiction.” I think the way the media grapples with issues of bias, objectivity, transparency and trust are central to the crisis we are experiencing, so I was excited to hear what nuanced thoughts experts had to share on the matter. I was curious about what kinds of questions they were asking, where they were being self-reflective, how they were creatively coming up with new approaches to confronting bias and building trust with the public. I was hoping to hear about nuances that I hadn’t before considered in the context of this conversation.

Instead, what a few classmates and I witnessed was a bloodbath of polarized political ideologies and pompous “journalistic” ideals on display. The discussion of bias was immediately reduced down to red or blue. No other identities, experiences, privileges or influences were considered in the conversation.

There was literally no space for listening, even among the panelists who were supposed to be in conversation with each other on stage. There was no sign of humility, much less empathy.

No one acknowledged that bias is unavoidable, and the way that journalists talk about and present it to the public is directly related to audience trust.

Rather, each competed for “air time” and made sure to say their piece. Interesting points that could have been drawn out or explored from multiple points of view were dismissed and trampled over as new points were made, each speaker with his or her own agenda independent of each other. Each person asserted that he or she was right and just and “objective” and everyone else was “biased” and wrong.

It was not an enjoyable or helpful experience for us, the audience.

(If you are curious to see for yourself, the live stream of the event is here.)

A couple of us stuck around for the reception (i.e. free wine) and dared ourselves to talk to at least one new person. I started chatting with a woman who I learned was also a student. I wish I had caught her name, but what she said stuck with me. She said, “It just seems like there’s such a disconnect between what they were fighting about on that stage and what people actually need when they watch the news. My mom watches the news every morning, but how does that help her in her daily life?”

It was almost as if our social journalism professors had planted that woman in the crowd, because THOSE are exactly the kinds of questions we have been discussing in our classes.

How do we make the news more relevant to people’s lived experiences and helpful to the way they navigate their day-to-day lives, informing how they interact with the world around them?

This week in class, we did some introductory exercises around the principles of design thinking, which was SUCH as stark contrast to the panel event.

According to IDEO, one of the leaders in this stuff, “Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving. Design thinking has a human-centered core. It encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes.”

What a novel idea.

The whole point of design thinking is to break from the conventional capitalistic frame of thinking: making a good or service that you think is a cool idea and then convincing people they need to purchase and consume said good or service to make their lives better.

Design thinking starts with the people. It starts with their values, their desires, their challenges and their needs, and builds from there. It is iterative. The solutions, ideas, services and products it yields evolve and shift to accommodate the changing needs that people have.

In our social media tools class, our professor Luis Miguel Echegaray brought us into a design thinking state of mind when he said,“That ‘Field of Dreams’ mentality of build it and they will come? It’s actually the opposite of that. You have to go to them.”

In our community engagement class, we talked about an initiative The City just started this summer called Open Newsrooms. The nonprofit news org is working in three neighborhoods in Brooklyn to listen to and develop solutions to information gaps and news coverage alongside residents who live there.

Then, we used a framework from the Institute of Design at Stanford to try some design thinking out with each other.

It flowed like this:

Start by gaining empathy.

  1. Interview.
  2. Dig deeper.

Reframe the problem.

  1. Capture findings.
  2. Take a stand with a point of view.

Ideate, generate alternatives to test.

  1. Sketch at least five radical ways to meet your user’s needs.
  2. Share your solutions and capture feedback.

Iterate based on feedback.

  1. Reflect and generate a new solution.

Build and test.

  1. Build your solution.
  2. Share your solution and get feedback.

We prototyped apps designed to specifically accommodate each other’s ideal news digest. Michaela made me a great morning playlist with audio news from Milwaukee, New York and the major national and international headlines mixed in with my favorite music.

It rocked, literally.

The one constructive thing that I took from the media bias panel event was a closing thought from Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources.

He said, “If you don’t like the state of the media, make it better.”

That is the task at hand, and it is not for the faint of heart. I think design thinking could be an interesting starting point for us.

Allison Dikanovic

Written by

becoming a better listener & making journalism more of a service at @newmarkjschool. new york via milwaukee.

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