(Screenshots of graphics by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vox, The Financial Times)
My name is Youyou Zhou. I’m a data journalist from China currently based in New York. The first half of 2020 couldn’t be weirder. We watched COVID-19 case numbers rise and fall in our communities and globally; we contemplated the proper social distancing practices every time we leave our homes; we were forced to confront questions like: How did it happen? What can I do now? Never has visual journalism played such an important role in changing people’s perceptions and behaviors at the scale we are witnessing now.
The iconic image of “flattening the curve” effectively conveys the message that social distancing isn’t about reducing cases, but about saving lives by keeping case numbers below the capacity of the healthcare system. The image democratized the knowledge public health experts have had for years, and helped build a consensus around social distancing.
In the middle of the pandemic, charts that tracked the trajectory of COVID-19 cases by country popped up all over social media. Those colorful spaghetti lines painted a picture that countries were competing with one another to “flatten the curve.” One can easily call out winners and losers from the chart, but the reality is much more nuanced: jurisdictions used different methodologies to report cases and had different testing capacities. Comparing case numbers across countries is both inaccurate and irresponsible. Nonetheless, these visuals have inspired policies like travel restrictions and instigated racist and xenophobic sentiments.
Good visuals have immense power, too. What speaks more volumes than seeing a thousand names printed in small types on the front page of The New York Times? These names represent nearly one-hundredth of the human lives lost to the pandemic in the U.S. Instead of seeing dots — a typical design choice, we see actual human beings. Rich and dramatic data points have emerged from the pandemic and can help shape public perceptions in important ways. What sets apart the great work from the good ones is the ability to empathize and humanize.
Seeing is believing. It’s much easier to love a chart that backs one’s existing belief than to read and understand a chart that challenges it. The pandemic calls for a higher level of data literacy among the public. It also calls for a higher standard for visual and data journalists: be more empathic, always scrutinize the data, add nuance, and back visuals with solid reporting.
- Youyou Zhou
Dear readers: Chinese Storytellers will be publishing a special edition of our newsletter about Hong Kong: how Beijing's proposed national security law affects journalists in the city and beyond. Stay tuned.
MAKE A SPLASH 卧虎藏龙
Best work from our members.
💔 The Infinite Heartbreak of Loving Hong Kong
As China moves to impose a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, Wilfred Chan recounts the city’s historical struggles and ponders on its future in a heartfelt essay for The Nation.
🏫 A Couple Quarantines Apart
Yan Cong 丛妍 and her partner Krish Raghav traveled from New York to Beijing in late March and went through a mandatory 14-day quarantine in separate hotel rooms. They document their “long-distance” relationship across a hotel hallway with photos, comics, and words for The Washington Post.
(Photo by Yan Cong)
🇺🇸🇨🇳 Death of A Scientist
Shen Lu profiles the Stanford professor Zhang Shoucheng, a potential Nobel laureate and savvy, bicultural businessman who took his life when U.S.-China relations were at their worst point in decades.
🌟 Best Chinese Visual Journalism on COVID-19
Yan Cong, Beimeng Fu, and Ye Charlotte Ming curate the best visual stories about COVID-19 in China for ChinaFile. Told from diverse perspectives, these stories depict the pain, strength, and sacrifices amid the outbreak.
🌾 The Cruelest Month
“April is the cruelest month,” so goes the opening line to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” This April has been exceptionally cruel. Yangyang Cheng writes for SupChina about grief and mourning, the meaninglessness of death, and the enduring purpose of language.
👭 The Making of The Half of It
Dolly Li speaks to Alice Wu, writer and director of the Netflix movie “The Half of it” in an episode of her podcast Plum Radio, a news and culture podcast from the Asian perspective.
📺 Chinese Farmers’ New Survival Tool
The pandemic is changing the agricultural industry. Now producers can sell products through e-commerce platforms directly to consumers. The MIT Technology Review’s Karen Hao 郝珂灵 speaks to farmers and live-streamers about this new trend and how it has indelibly changed their lives.
🎫 Premiering in Your Inbox
Filmmaker Jiang Nengjie took an unusual approach to distribute his documentary about coal workers in Henan: sending it directly to people’s inboxes. Beimeng Fu writes about the struggles of Chinese indie-doc makers and one director’s fight to defend his freedom of expression.
🌇 The Lost “Little Africa”
In an essay published in The New York Review of Books, April Zhu 朱萸 reflects on the history of Guangzhou, a southern trading port so diverse at a time that it was regarded as the melting pot of China. That has changed.
💰 Inside China’s Black Market for Foster Children
SixthTone’s Wanqing Zhang went undercover as a prospective client in an illegal adoption group and talked to agents and a father who tried to sell his daughter.
💓 Asylum Seeker-Turned COVID-19 Frontline Worker
Inkstone’s Viola Zhou writes about how an asylum seeker from China joined the frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19 in New York City.
🚫 Scrubbed from Social Media
The Chinese government deleted social media articles and posts in the early days of the pandemic. Shawn Yuan documents the deletions and writes for The Wired about what kind of information the government wanted to erase.
📚 Reading Meng Jin’s “Little Gods”
Jianan Qian 钱佳楠 reviews Chinese American writer Meng Jin’s debut novel, in which the author breaks down the mystery of the Other and reconciles readers’ inability and unwillingness to understand others.
🛒 Amazon Sourced Cameras from Blacklisted Chinese Firms
Krystal Hu from Reuters reports that Amazon bought thermal cameras from a firm blacklisted by the U.S. The firm allegedly helped China detain and surveil Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
😷 The Explosion of Mask Startups
In February, the price of mask fabric increased by 10 times in China, fueling the surge of fabric producers and causing quality and working condition issues. Dian Zhang 张点 writes for USA Today.
⛽ Financing Fossil Fuels in Hong Kong
Banks financing fossil fuels are affecting the environment. Katherine Cheng visualizes the impact in a collaborative photo essay for Climate Tracker.
👋Submit your published work in three ways: 1. DM us on Twitter; 2. Post it on the Slack channel #shamelessplugs; 3. Email email@example.com.
ROCK THE BOAT 抛砖引玉
Thoughts from our members and beyond on topics about the media industry, diversity and more.
What is the role of data and visuals in this pandemic? Could you share a piece of visual or data story that struck you deeply? — Youyou Zhou
April Zhu, a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, shares a map that shows the power of visual storytelling:
Even though I had covered COVID-19 from Kenya since January and known that most cases had originated from North America and Europe, this map still took me by surprise. Compiled by the COVID-19 Afro Tracking Team, the map shows that between mid-February and late-March, the vast majority of Africa’s imported cases weren’t from China. This graphic actually pointed out a blindspot in our discourse, that the virus originated in China. In reality, Europe was the hub for its global spread.
Katherine Cheng, a freelance photographer based in Hong Kong says satellite images are great at telling a global story over an extended period of time, but they can be easily distorted and misinterpreted:
I recently worked on a piece about the use of satellite images vs. photographs when communicating the drop in Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emission. While satellite images are great at showing the invisible (pollution) at a global scale, they are often made more dramatic with high contrast and color saturation. Arbitrary coloring could lead to a misconception of the severity of the situation and a loss of subtlety of the message. Photos are a good complement when telling a climate story. Although they do not show the regional or global picture over a period of time like satellite images do, they accurately capture a single moment in time. For example, satellite images tracking NO2 levels in the first three months of 2019 vs. 2020 are paired with before-and-after photos of air pollution and traffic in Iran in this National Geographic article.
Jiachuan Wu, an interactive journalist on the NBC News Digital graphics team, says that data and visuals can raise questions that can be answered by solid reporting:
My team at NBC built an unemployment tracker that shows jobless numbers by state on a heatmap. By looking at the colored squares, we can tell that states like Georgia, Kentucky, Hawaii and Washington have seen the largest job losses. However, the heatmap could only show you who and what, but not how and why. Interviews built upon our data analysis and visual presentation tell us more. Laid-off workers in some states had difficulty submitting claims because they didn’t have access to the internet. In some states, workers had yet to file for benefits simply because state unemployment portals were not built for the volume of traffic they are now receiving.
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RAISE A GLASS 拍个马屁
We recognize our members’ professional achievements (and flatter them).
🏆 Quartz's China-focused video series, Because China — produced by Isabelle Niu, Tony Lin, and their team — won a Webby Award of People’s Voice in the Video: News and Politics category.
🏆 Election Confessions by Jiachuan Wu’s team at NBC News Group won the Social: News and Politics category of the Webby Awards.
🎉 The New York Times's coverage of China’s repression of Uighur Muslims, including a video co-produced by Muyi Xiao at the Visual Investigations unit, was a finalist in the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting category.
🎤 Joy Dantong Ma joined a panel discussion on U.S.-China AI Policy as part of the virtual conference, US-China Series.
🎉 Yuhong Pang’s documentary Our Daughters was selected for the IFP Filmmaker fellowship.
🥂 Tell us what makes you proud via email, Slack or Twitter.
MAKE SOME DOUGH 肥水入田
Jobs, gigs, grants, fellowships, etc.
Nikkei Asian Review is always looking for China-based contributors to its Life & Arts section—subjects should be modern, newsy and lively, and can cover everything from gender, society and tech to food, film/TV and gaming. US$400 for 1,100-1,200 words. CONTACT
Every Friday through June, the General Assembly offers free workshops ranging from coding, to data and marketing, to UX design and career development. REGISTER
CatchLight, Dysturb, and The Everyday Projects are seeking submissions for visual art and storytelling that address key public health messages in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis. APPLY
PBS Newshour is looking for a news desk operations editor. APPLY
Society of Professional Journalists has launched an emergency fund to help journalists encountering temporary financial hurdles due to job loss or income reduction. APPLY
Living While Asians is accepting story pitches related to Covid-19 until Sunday, May 31. MORE
International Women’s Media Foundation is hiring an executive coordinator in Washington D.C. APPLY
KrAsia, an affiliate with 36Kr, is hiring a remote-friendly data visualization intern. APPLY
👀 Find more on the #opportunities channel on Slack.
Writer: Youyou Zhou; Editors: Isabelle Niu, Shen Lu.
Chinese Storytellers is a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.