Meet the team behind CNN’s famous ‘Magic Wall’

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CNN’s John King has become synonymous with the “Magic Wall,” a touch screen with a wide array of up-to-date polling data from election night. The incredibly fast breakdown of this data and its extensive knowledge across the political spectrum has captured the attention of many news organizations, social media enthusiasts and late-night hosts.

But behind the camera, there’s a whole team of experts who create the technical magic that King and the other reporters display on live television.

We spoke with the producers and designers who upload the data and create the graphics that power the Magic Wall to learn how the technology has evolved over recent election cycles, and what new features we can expect to see in the 2022 midterms.

Here is an excerpt from our interview, edited for length and clarity:

David Reisner, Senior Producer: This was before people had iPhones in their pockets, right? So at the time, technology was unheard of to try to program this visual story of very, very dense, heavy data that we’ve known for years, but created in such a way that it was interactive and an expansion. Broad political knowledge of the era of John King. So the question was, how do we crack the brain dump of all the knowledge he has? He was able to call a primary in Cuyahoga County in the 80s like that (snaps), now we can quickly click and show the world how impressive that is.

John Murphy, Senior Producer: An example would be what we call repetition mode. Before 2020, the wall only showed the latest vote counts. In 2020, between the pandemic and the order in which the votes were counted, we knew the results would take longer than usual and that states could flip from red to blue or vice versa depending on whether states counted mail-in votes or in-person votes. . This gave rise to the so-called blue mirage and red mirage. We needed a way to roll the walls back 24 hours or 48 hours to show how the counts changed and explain why that happened; so in four weeks we built a system for exactly that.

Pallavi Reddy, CEO: The challenge is to make sure we’re keeping up with current stories and politics. But at the same time, there is a simplicity to it. The Magic Wall does not change; it will always show you election data and events. And that’s what makes it such a powerful part of what we use for election night. No matter what kind of noise is going on in the political arena, it’s always about the election data and where it is right now and how to inform our audience using that specific data and nothing else.

Billy Holbert, executive producer: We always like to say that if John King was a jazz player, this is his instrument. We create this tool to keep up with it and to go one step further, that is our challenge, always. Therefore, the data for the presidency in the tool goes back to 1980. We can show you where and how people voted for Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, down to the county level. In 2014, all of this had to be manually converted and uploaded. Pallavi and I spent quite some time on this, getting carpal tunnel along the way.

Caroline Tounget, Producer: We play almost every part of what this Magic Wall can do, and maybe some, so we know we’ve done everything John can do before he gets in front of the cameras.

Tongue: There are things called “demographic layers” that we put on the Magic Wall in the 2020 election to show not only the demographics, like where the black or Hispanic voter population might be, but also where the concentration of Covid is really high and how. data has progressed over the months.

Lauren Holt, Producer: One big thing we’re spending a lot of time on this year is that there’s a completely new redistricted (congressional) map because the census went through a recount. So a nice new feature that will be great this redistricting year is our congressional district by district tool. In all home races and in all districts, John (the King) can be flagged and then broken down into smaller parts, i.e. at the county level.

Unlike any other year where you would see a single color representing the candidate in the lead, now you can see the regional breakdown of who is leading in which region. This gives the results much more context than the two numbers in the top row.

Holt: There are so many stories rooted in data, and Magic Wall’s capabilities can be applied beyond elections and politics, whether it’s climate-related or economic. The world is full of data. I think a lot of people realized that when Covid happened in 2020 and everyone suddenly became aware of the CDC data visualization dashboard.

Reddy: I’d love to get this in the hands of our viewers so they can watch John King or Phil Mattingly on the Magic Wall on election night and delve into the stories that matter to them as viewers. You can go get that information yourself and be your own John King at home.

This is not a touch screen technology. This is a data visualization. The more visualizations we apply to data, the better our reports, the better our data analysis, the better context we can provide to our audience. And the more we can put that in the hands of our audience—whether it’s digital or television or whatever—the better it will be for everyone.