How visual journalism can explain complex problems

Alvin Chang covers policy and politics at Vox. In our advent calendar, he explains how he used visuals to explain the complex systems behind modern school segregation in the USA.

I've been asked to write about my piece on how American school districts can draw school zone borders to lessen segregation — but, often, they continue to keep schools segregated or gerrymander the zones to make schools even more segregated. The core of this piece is a data tool that lets you look up your own district and see how it's doing.

The piece has garnered a huge amount of attention, and has been used to push policy changes in several municipalities.

But I want to talk about a piece I wrote months before this one, because it explains how something like this can come to be.

A broader interest drove these stories

I've long been interested in how affluent people use boundaries to benefit themselves, while hurting others. American courts and legislatures have created the very tools that allow this to happen.

This is a very broad topic, so I decided to explore this concept through a very specific story. It's about a "new" kind of school segregation — one in which predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods create a new school district with the purpose of fencing out poor students. That act, in and of itself, is worthy of coverage. But I wanted to explain why this was allowed. I wanted my readers to understand why our legal system allows for this, because only then can we actually go about fixing it.

This is why a huge part of that piece was about history and legal decisions surrounding school segregation.

Why visual journalism is great in explaining systems

Journalists are very good at concisely articulating problems. It's not only a core part of our function, but it also provides a narrative thrust to our stories.

But we aren't very good at teaching our readers why these problems exist — and the systems that drive these problems. It's often hard to write about these systems because they don't fit well into a linear storytelling format; in describing the chicken and egg problem, do you first talk about the chicken or the egg? Visual diagrams often help solve this problem.

The advantage I had in covering this piece on school district secession was that I could explain the context with visual diagrams. I could show not only what is happening, but also why it's happening.

Source: Alvin Chang / Vox Media

Exploring these systems led me to a larger story

Shortly after I wrote this first piece, I got an email from University of Chicago PhD student Tomas Monarrez. As hard as it is, I try to respond to every email I get. And initially, I responded to Tomas as a courtesy and, eventually, we got on a phone call.

Tomas told me we had a shared interest in how people with power use boundaries to segregate. That concept, in and of itself, is hard to grasp. So many of us believe our school zone boundaries are set in stone — that it just is, that it's just about logistics, and no one necessarily made these decisions. That, of course, isn't true. But having that shared understanding helped us have a conversation about his research.

And because of the contextual knowledge I had from reporting out the previous piece, I could see his research was groundbreaking.

He had a dataset that showed what would happen if every kid went to the nearest school; this still creates pretty segregated schools, since the underlying neighborhoods are very segregated. So school district should, at the least, not make that worse.

However, he also had a dataset that showed what the actual school zones are.

That allowed us to compare whether or not school districts were making the underlying segregation better — or worse.

But the kicker: The context was still the most important

I've heard from many people after publishing this piece, and I'm always amazed how much they deemphasize the actual data — and how much they say the contextual historical and legal information was crucial in them understanding what was happening.

The three things I want to do for the reader in every piece is:

  1. Show that there is an important problem.

  2. Show how that problem affects them.

  3. Show the system that created this problem, which is basically about how people organize to make decisions.

The personalized data presentation only does one of those three things. It's everything else that allows readers to have an understanding of these problems — and to feel empowered to be active citizens in solving these problems.



Alvin Chang

I'm a senior reporter at Vox, covering policy and politics with data, charts, cartoons — and, my favorite, words.

Runs on:

Rate your CMS from 1 to 10.
10. Vox Media's Chorus team is amazing.

How many screens do you have on your desk?
1 massive 38-inch, ultra wide monitor.

Swear words per day? Mean: 10. Median: 0.

How many adapters do you have?
0. None of us should buy adapters. Instead, we should demand universal plugs.

Your funniest file name?
_backburner. It's a folder with projects I will eventually get to. I had the idea of using the underscore, since it will keep it at the top of any file list. But I never get to these projects, so it's accidentally turned into a reminder of all my failures.

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