Q&A: Vox data guru on how cartoons can help simplify complex issues

Alvin Chang. Photo by Vox.com staff.

Giant data sets and wonky legislation filled with policy jargon can be hard to follow for the average reader. As a senior graphic reporter for Vox, Alvin Chang has used simple cartoons to explain political and cultural topics such as who gets hurt by ending DACA, the Graham-Cassidy bill, how colleges subtly discriminate against poor students. He explained corporate tax reform in a cartoon about sandwiches and the GOP tax bill with a bowl of cereal.

In an interview with CJR, Chang talks about what got him into data journalism, insights into his processes behind creating visual proxies for readers, and how he hopes his work will help both encourage civic engagement and combat against “fake news.” The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

What initially got you interested in data and graphic journalism?

Throughout college, I was a straight news reporter. I edited NYU’s newspaper and wanted to work at a metro desk somewhere after college. But when I graduated, the only job I could find was as a hockey reporter at ESPN. This was for the “Insider” section, and a huge part of what they did was metrics and analysis—using data to come to conclusions about hockey. And I didn’t know how to do any of this. But I knew I wanted to learn, because it was a way of adding value to the conversation beyond having access. In journalism in general, but definitely sports journalism, if you don’t have access, you can’t get scoops. But I knew one the things I could do was data analysis. I taught myself how to use Excel and started dumping hockey data into it. But it felt inefficient, so I started teaching myself little bits of code.

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At the same time, I was in grad school at NYU in their Interactive Telecommunications Program, and there I learned more about creating experiences for people from both an artistic point of view and a journalistic point of view. After that, I worked at the Boston Globe, where I was a data visualization specialist. Then the Connecticut Mirror, which covered the state house. I was the data editor. I thought a lot about how to increase civic engagement—how do we help people engage with local and statewide policy issues in an effective and critical thinking way. And that was the type of experiences and thinking that I brought to Vox.

 

You’ve done everything from traditional bar graphs and data tables to simple cartoons. What is your process for determining what type of visualization you use?

A lot of times the stories I choose to do cartoon explainers with are stories where there is a complex system I want the reader to understand before they get to the data. For example, it’s one thing to use a bar chart to show that this recent tax bill mostly benefits wealthy people. It’s really difficult to square that with the rhetoric we receive from Republicans, which is that they want to simplify the tax code. So it’s really tempting for people to write an article, “that’s what they’re saying, but this is what they really want to do.” But we need context to determine what the politicians are saying the policy does versus what it actually does. I want people to see how it actually works, so I use a metaphor to explain that.

And sometimes it can be a more playful cartoon metaphor, but I go through dozens of potential ways to explain the topic. A lot of times we just give people the bar chart and say here is the outcome, but it’s really easy for that to just reinforce your current beliefs; you model how these different political parties work, how policy works, how a very partisan American political system works. I think visualizing these important details can help readers think critically about what’s happening, as opposed to just saying, “Oh, of course Republicans want to cut taxes and give money to rich people.” When thinking of a way to represent data or bills or anything else, I want people to understand the why, not just the outcome.

 

Where do you feel the balance needs to be in terms of doing the cool, technologically creative things Vox’s core readership likes and trying to reach audiences that may not be privy to Vox or sites like it?

The way I think about my work is that a lot of the conversations we have about the things we cover are had in a language that is exclusive. There are certain words and concepts we assume the reader knows to get the full value out of these pieces, especially ones about policy. I think my colleagues who aren’t on the visual side of things have helped me think of how to create content for audiences that may not have that full context, while still making sure it doesn’t sound like a Wikipedia page. I’ve taken their examples and translated it more in the visual realm to be more inclusive.

So for example, I write a lot about inequality and social mobility as it relates to education and housing. When I make these visual pieces, I want people to immediately start empathizing with these characters, be comfortable and ground themselves in this world, and engage with the problem along with the characters, almost like they are reading Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes. Recently, I made a game where you can play a college admissions officer, and immediately you can start rejecting people based off their SAT scores and family income. I wanted the reader to see all the incentives at play for the school, the students, the ranking services, etc. I want to encourage critical thinking, otherwise people just say, “Oh, here’s an easy solution to this.” But no, it’s not that simple. It gives you the proper framework to help you understand how an entire system works.

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But I just want to get at the idea of inclusivity. I don’t think I’m writing for the hardcore wonks who know all the ins and outs of an issue. I think of my work in more of a teaching framework. I’m writing for the people who don’t know about how these systems work. I’m from Kansas, so a lot of people I grew up are conservative, and on another side, a lot of people in my family are not native English speakers.

 

In your most recent visualization, you explained the Republican tax bill with a bowl of cartoon cereal. How do you make sure you make the data, bills, and policies more accessible without trivializing the issues they encompass?

People can see a cartoon and may think it’s dumbed down or not treating a subject with the type of seriousness it deserves. I argue that that’s more a bias we have against visual journalism that has some type of real-life human aspect to it. My cartoons are not like IKEA instruction booklets; they try to represent real humans who have real goals and fleshed out personalities. I think that adding life to these issues is important, and think they demonstrate the complexity that goes into an issue that may be hard to follow reading a long article or looking at a large data set. So for example, many say if Obamacare didn’t have the individual mandate, a lot of people wouldn’t buy insurance. It’s one thing to just be able to say that, it’s another thing to show how that fits into an entire healthcare system and show the economic incentives at play that keep it afloat. I want people to empathize with these individual decisions as well as seeing how these things fit into a larger system. And I think you can successfully simplify these policies without trivializing them.

 

In today’s media world, people have access to a seemingly never-ending list of new outlets. But they are also being bombarded with misleading, often false information, and straightforward lies. Where do you think your work fits in the fight against “fake news?”

I think lack of context is the most powerful weapon “fake news” has. I’m trying to create that context. Because here’s the thing: If I told you that I went to the store and saw a purple banana, most people would have the context to know that sounds fishy. But let’s say I echoed the most recent right-wing media storyline that the DNC rigged the primaries for Hillary Clinton. That’s completely out of context. But lack of context can lead to favorable conclusions as well. If we say Republicans want to cut taxes so small businesses have more money to employ more people, that sounds reasonable. And then you’re at a dinner table with your friends or family, and one of them says they support it, but the data is missing from that reasoning.

One thing I wrestle with is how hard it is to give people new information that changes their mental model of something. Sometimes we get a new piece of info, and it just reinforces how we already think about something, which is called accommodation. Like if I saw a purple banana, it would be kind of a “wow” moment at first, but then move to “I guess they exist now” and it wouldn’t change how I saw the world. But the thing I want to get to is assimilation, getting people to change their mental models based on new information. So if you saw the purple banana, and someone explained that they are starting to grow because bees stop pollinating (just making up this example), then you would start thinking differently about it, as a mutant fruit or want to learn more about bees, or pollination. It starts to open up some critical thinking, to illuminate some holes in your thinking that you need to fill.

So I don’t see my work as a competitor to the meme-based “fake news” world, but I think all journalists should be looking at ourselves as context-providing services. Otherwise, we aren’t helping people understand the world any better.

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Joshua Adams is a writer, journalist, and adjunct instructor at DePaul University. He holds a B.A. in African American Studies from the University of Virginia and a Journalism M.A. from the University of Southern California.