Fair warning in case it sneaked up on you: Valentine’s Day is this week. Yes, already. But you still have plenty of time to make plans and we’ve got some ideas for you. Last week our colleagues Jonathan Lai and Jared Whalen were seeing red, but it had nothing to do with the holiday. They were examining the “red response” that met the “blue wave” during November’s elections in Pennsylvania. Their interactive, data-driven report required intense teamwork, which they told us all about in this week’s Q&A.
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Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chatted with Jonathan Lai and Jared Whalen about their recent report on the increasing political polarization of Pennsylvania. The interactive visual elements they created capture how the region’s divides are deepening.
Jonathan, walk me through the story development from concept to execution. What inspired you to report on this story in the first place, and then present it this way?
Jonathan Lai: We didn’t know what the story would be, but precincts are the most granular level you can get for official election results, so we wanted a chance to explore such a detailed dataset (shout-out to the Pennsylvania Department of State for fielding my constant barrage of questions about when the data would be available). Election results take a while to be certified, so we also knew we would need to tell a deep story that wasn’t simply about what happened in the one election. Once we had the data, we could begin to interrogate it: What’s unexpected? What’s different from previous years? What goes unseen when we only look at county-level results? As Jared and I analyzed the data, we knew the story had to be told through the maps and graphics — we had to show people what we were seeing, not just tell them about it.
Jared, in a previous Q&A we learned about your responsibilities and role as a news developer in the newsroom. Can you explain how you were involved in this project?
Jared Whalen: This story was different from a lot of the work I do in that I was very much involved in the reporting. From the beginning, it was Jonathan and me cleaning up the data in order to do comparative analyses. After we cleaned up the data, I would visualize it in various ways to help us decipher what was happening. Once we reached a point where we knew what the story was, we “mapped” out the narrative and figured out what graphics would illustrate the takeaways best.
What was the most difficult part of this story?
Lai: There were two big challenges. The first was making the data work, especially over multiple years. Precincts change over time, especially as populations change, so being able to match results from different elections took a lot of manual work, including comparing lots of maps and talking with lots of election officials. The second challenge was one of leadership: Our newsroom is still not built for this kind of story, and that makes it difficult to get something new done. Like many legacy newsrooms, we are trying to transform ourselves but have not yet figured it all out.
Whalen: Building the dataset was by far the hardest part. Even though the Pennsylvania Department of State gave us the data, we have to spend a lot of time adjusting for geographic changes between 2014 and 2018. This involved referring to multiple maps, calling county offices, and making sense of the various voting precinct naming conventions used throughout the state.
How did you work together in crafting the design of this story?
Lai: It’s a good thing Jared and I are already friends, because we spent a lot of time huddled together at my desk working on analyzing the data and discussing how to tell the story. Data analysis is reporting, so Jared was instrumental to making this story happen. As we put the story itself together, we had to really take it piece by piece; my writing affected his design, and his design affected my writing.
What’s one thing you hope readers take away from this story?
Whalen: I think polarization is dangerous. If anything, I hope this encourages people to step outside their cultural and political bubble and listen to different perspectives.
Lai: I hope they’ll consider the implications of long-term polarization and geographic sorting. This is not only about who wins an election, it affects representation and governance. What happens as political divides continue to deepen?
Makes you twist your head (or screen) doesn’t it? Nice shot @phillystory!
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Thanks for everything Nick!! I’m 76 and missed the 1960 championship games, as I was stationed in Korea! I was starting to give up on ever seeing the Eagles win one! I’ll always remember your great playing in those playoffs and championship win!! So good luck with whatever you decide to do!!— Beenaround, on Nick Foles voids option after Eagles pick it up, setting stage for free agency or franchise tag.