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Mona Chalabi on data journalism and covering Palestine
Computer, Gadget & Technology

Mona Chalabi on data journalism and covering Palestine

A bloodied press jacket. A body shrouded in white. Families with linked hands walking with all they can carry on their backs. These are the images that Mona Chalabi uses to create harrowing and biting infographics about atrocities in Gaza. 

Chalabi won a Pulitzer for her in-depth reporting and inimitably clever data viz on Jeff Bezos’s wealth, but she got her start doing statistics at the UN. Her media career has been many-faceted — a column at 538, a podcast, a Ted Talk, and a TV show. Much of her online presence is now devoted to spreading awareness on the subject of Palestine, all through the same medium of fastidiously researched statistics paired with her signature style of hand-drawn ink lines and color-blocked design. 

I caught up with her to talk about the storytelling power of hard numbers, the poetic way she expresses the global power imbalances she seeks to draw attention to, and the anxiety of striving to be as accurate as possible. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Posted on January 8th, 2024.
Graphic: Mona Chalabi

What has it been like to post the work that you’ve made about Palestine on social media? 

It’s been really hard. It’s been hard because I know why a lot of the people that I follow are remaining utterly silent, because there are consequences to you talking on this subject, both in your personal life and your professional life. But I’m holding the work to the exact same standard as I do any other piece that I do: is this the truth? Is this accurate to the best of our current knowledge of what the situation is, and does it help to further the conversation? You know, there’s also so much work the other journalists are doing. I don’t really believe in just duplicating, I want to say something additive. And I’m trying to set aside the downsides for me personally and just continue to do the work.

Do people label you an activist? 

I think the question only ever comes up in interviews. For most people who consume information or consume artwork or consume whatever, they don’t tend to be so hung up on definitions as the people that are writing about it. I don’t think people who follow me necessarily care whether or not I would describe myself as an activist. All that matters is that I’m producing information on whether or not it’s accurate. 

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Your work is very poetic and very good at expressing scale and magnitude. Can you talk a little bit about the ideation process that you use to create the recent work that you’ve been making?

Yeah. It’s not a thought process that’s different from the same thought process that I’ve used throughout all of my work. As you say, it’s about magnitude. It’s about scale. 

Part of the story is asking, how does this point in time compare to the rest of history? How does this part of geography compare to a larger geography?  

My process for finding questions involves reading existing coverage and thinking, what isn’t being said here? So I’ll be reading existing news coverage, but also taking questions from people who are writing to me directly or conversations I’m having with other people around me. 

This is a longstanding practice. That was exactly the case when I was covering covid. It was the case when I was covering the protests that were happening after George Floyd’s murder. Every election that I’ve looked at, I ask, what do we get? What do we get by zooming out? How do we understand the world differently?

The thing that I’m really concerned about is how to zoom out without losing the humanity. I think there’s something really important actually about hearing what’s happening to, for example, Brenda in Queens, hearing her individual story. Even if the data suggests that her experience is actually quite rare, that’s not a reason to not listen to Brenda. So maybe Brenda is saying, “My experience of becoming a teen parent was phenomenal. It was really, really good for me to put my life on track. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” And there’s this survey data that shows for 70 percent of teen parents, that’s not the case. 

What concerns me sometimes is the way a reader can get to 70 percent after something gets rounded up to a hundred. The 30 percent gets lost in the narrative so easily. I don’t want to do that thing that data so often does, which is just flattening out everybody’s experiences. 

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Can you talk a little more about that?

Yeah. So more often than not it’s asking, what does the data say? Everyone’s talking about funding cuts at UNRWA. But what does it mean to say the US has cut X million dollars? That doesn’t mean anything unless you understand UNRWA’s total budget. Unless you understand the other donors and which ones have backed out. And the total budget only makes sense if you understand it in the context of how many people in Gaza rely on it to survive. 

So what are all of those numbers? Then on the basis of those numbers, what is a visualization that makes sense? This is something I’m trying to think through right now. And I move so much slower now. 

Like five years ago, I was trying to do a piece in a few hours the day of, and now I’m just like, no, I’m going to take a few days and I’m still working the same number of hours each day. There’s no change in the intensity, just a more cautious approach. There’s a slower pace of working. And so, again, what is the visualization that I’m going to use? How will I show how cruel this funding cut is? 

“What is the visualization that I’m going to use? How will I show how cruel this funding cut is?”

The illustration that I would have used in the past would be something that symbolizes what UNRWA is providing —If it’s tents or food — and then disappearing out. What fraction of that is now going to be lost now that that funding is gone? It’s really hard in these early stages. A really key part of any illustration is finding the correct visual language for this. For the most sensitive subjects, when I’m talking about, for example, homicide rates or domestic violence, the same playfulness that I use in other areas of my work doesn’t make sense. What is the visual language for domestic violence? Often I start with a Google image search and look through the stock imagery it pulls up. Alamy and Getty stock is always a woman for domestic violence, usually sitting down, hugging her knees, the same visual language. It’s immediate and it’s quick to understand, which is important, because I need it to have that kind of speed. But it also perpetuates all of our lazy existing tropes. 

We see this all the time with gender. If I’m going to show men and women, which unfortunately is very often all that exists in the dataset, I’m going to pick them in a way that isn’t lazily, reinforcing ‘a woman is anyone who wears a fucking dress and a man is anyone in trousers.’ It can be very hard to break out of our existing visual language in a way that isn’t confusing for viewers. 

Posted on March 3rd, 2024.
Graphic: Mona Chalabi

When people talk about posting anything that’s largely considered to be controversial for any reason, it seems like there’s some who experience a high increase in visibility on them. And then there’s the flip side, where increased visibility brings increased censorship on their work and reach. Do you feel like you’ve experienced either of those?

I don’t know. Maybe both. People have said their comments aren’t working. Other users are saying they’re being silenced or deplatformed. I haven’t said any of those things because I don’t know that they’re the case. And I think it’s quite a big thing to say, and you have to be certain that there’s a pattern that’s going on. The way that a lot of this stuff works, the algorithm is so opaque that you don’t really know which of those two trends is happening to you. 

I would say, anecdotally, because I’ve posted on this long before October 7th… I think that the horrific violence on October 7th, for some people, shifted their understanding of the violence that was happening in Palestine. That happened in both directions. All of a sudden now, there was an opportunity to learn more about this conflict and understand its historical origins. And for other people, there was a reason actually to look away from it and be like, “Oh, it’s complicated,” and to me that’s kind of gross. 

So basically, that’s a convoluted way of saying that on October 7th, I saw a big chunk of my followers immediately disappear in the first week after. And then I see over the four months since then, that number has leveled out and then increased over it as people have sought out information on Palestine. 

I don’t even like describing it in those terms, because this isn’t really about me or my following. 

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Is there anything else you’d like to say about your work? 

The thing that does feel really, really important to say is that I want to make sure my work on Palestine is contextualized in this broader framework of what I’ve always done. 

There’s this assumption that I care about Palestine because I’m an Arab. I really want to contextualize it’s not based on identity. It fits into the broader body of my work, which is about how to inform people about marginalization in all of its forms. 

As time goes on, this work is going to become really, really difficult for me. And I think, inevitably, because I’m not turning away from my work and because this conflict isn’t going anywhere, I’m going to end up covering other things. 

The first time I cover something else, I don’t want people to think, “Oh, look, she’s sick of it now.” Even if you see me talking about other things, this hasn’t gone from my mind. Palestine has been on my mind for a long time, and it will continue to be on my mind. The reason why it’s on my mind is not because of identity politics. It’s because I care about marginalization. 

It seems so clear after you won a Pulitzer for your reported work. It seems obvious that there is a lot of information to back up everything that you have to say. 

It’s funny how a lot of people viewed me as a rigorous journalist on every other topic. And when it came to this, all of a sudden there was this disbelief in my method of research. There was this suspicion that all of a sudden it wasn’t rigorous. I think that really, really speaks to the very, very, very deeply entrenched biases that exist around this subject. 

There’s this notion that Palestinian narratives are not as reliable and should be treated with caution. I hope that it’s finally kind of starting to shift a little bit. 

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