Liar liar pants on fire
I was once also a liar in creating graphs, I might even be a ‘good’ one according to Cairo’s (2015) strategies for becoming a good liar:
- Hiding relevant data to highlight what benefits us
- Displaying too much data to obscure reality
- Using graphic forms in inappropriate ways (distorting the data)
I was working on a product comparison project last year, in order to highlight the tiny difference between the two products, I made the Y axis ridiculously obfuscating. The trick here is not only manipulating the Y axis, but also the graph’s trend line (termed the slope parameter) (Beattie & Jones, 2002). The graphs were only shown on slides during internal presentations and the sales team was not allowed to share it due to ‘confidentiality’, no questions were ever raised. In fact, as I mentioned, there are differences between the two products, and the competitor’s product was performing slightly worse, but the graphs mainly portray performance favourable to us which was misleading for the customers. According to Beattie and Jones (2002), information processing of graphs is likely to rely on visual perceptual processing rather than highly cognitive processing, hence it is important to determine the graph shape and slope parameters which will convey the most accurate impression. So, as guilty as I was, I also realized how important it is to be truthful and to place information accurately. Cairo (2015) indicated in his research that truth may be unattainable, fuzzy, or even unknowable in many circumstances, but that does not spare us from our obligation of being truthful.
- If you want to know more about how to spot a misleading graph, check this TEDx video.
There are many examples of misleading graphs out there, Ruud also showed us many different types of misleading graphs during the class. As Ruud also explained, graphs are one of the visualizations, there are many other types. Thus, I will be focusing on misleading images in the following blog post.
Fog or Pollution?
Apart from pandas and economic growth, the media also talks about another pressing issue in China — pollution. You probably have seen pictures of China’s pollution in the news like this:
Same view on a clear day looks like this:
I am not trying to disguise anything about the severity of the air pollution in China, I am here to show you how images with misleading titles can influence people’s opinions on things.
If I tell you this image is about pollution in China, you would believe it right?
Also this one:
Except the first one is London in the 19th century, the second one is in Hamilton (Canada) a couple of years ago.
And when I tell you, it is only fog in London, but it is actual pollution in China, you also wouldn’t doubt it right?
I have been living in the Netherlands for more than 7 years and people constantly ask me all kinds of questions about China. There was one question I remembered so vividly it is still shocking for me to imagine how people perceive China from media. She asked me “You are not going to China soon for holiday? Because the smog is so bad you have to stay here?” One may say she was very rude or even ignorant but she is not the only one having the same idea about a foreign country.
This was a picture taken by me on the 17th of July 2017 in Beijing:
It was a foggy morning at the Great Wall, hence the visibility was not very good. However, if I would add the title “Pollution in China just reached another level”, how would you argue otherwise? In fact, there was a western guy that day making fun of the fog while he was climbing the great wall, “people are breathing this air and think it is fog all the time, lovely.” I didn’t even bother to explain or argue with him because he was there seeing it as pollution instead of fog with his own eyes, I didn’t think I could convince him otherwise.
One week later, on the 24th of July, a friend of mine posted a picture of the Great Wall:
So, do you believe me now that it was really fog in my picture?
- Jimmy Kets shows you how angles matter in images in the #BrusselsLockdown video.
2nd and 3rd of September, 2015
One other example, in this news of 2015, a picture was inserted with the following description: Chinese soldiers drilling on September 2 for the big September 3 parade. You can’t see the skies they’re marching under, but all reports from Beijing say they are brilliant blue. (Jason Lee / Reuters)
It sounded all reports from Beijing were lying.
This is how the sky looked on the 3rd of September 2015:
It was the parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of China winning the Second World War against Japan. It was a special day for the country and the people, the older generation fought hard and long for the survival of the young ones, but the focus had to be put on the color of the sky instead of memorise the history. Misleading? To say the least.
“Visual appeal is undoubtedly a value worth pursuing, but not at the cost of hurting the integrity of the information.” (Cairo, 2015)
On the 2nd of September 2015, something else also happened. Still remember these pictures?
The 3 years old drowned boy on a beach in Turkey made headlines to countless news outlets, social media channels, and we heard many versions of his story until his identity was being confirmed. Some said he was a refugee who is a victim to the entire situation; some said he was a Turkish boy drowned because he was playing alone at the beach; no matter which version you read, this boy brought the European refugee crisis discussion to heat.
“Journalism is literally being rolled over by propaganda” John Nichols
Evidence-driven to Popularity-driven?
The boy’s name is Alan Kurdi, he and his family were Syrian refugees (Withnall, 2015). In this and this news items from the Guardian, one reported the boy’s family wanted to reach Greece, and a day later, they reported the family wanted to reach Canada. And in this news item from the Guardian, it was explained the Kurdi family had escaped Syria, and tried Turkey. On one single news website, there are already three different stories about Alan Kurdi. Before anything got confirmed, different stories didn’t make it any easier for the readers to identify what was true. Journalism is facing new ethical issues because of the emergence of the Internet and Information and Communication Technologies (Diaz-Campo & Segado-Boj, 2015).Improved technology means that stories are being covered in real time. This often means that accuracy can be sacrificed for being able to run “something” on a blog, television, online and to be the first to “scoop” the story, even if all the facts are not yet in (Swienton & Upshaw Downs, 2012). Since when did journalism change from evidence-driven to popularity-driven?
Left and Right, they are a part of the story, however, every online and offline channel can choose to only report one side of it to portray information favourably. A problem can arise if those who are believed to be fair and unbiased have personal agendas and slant the story in the effort not to inform but to persuade. (Diaz-Campo & Segado-Boj, 2015)
If truth can be hard to obtain, how truthful were the journalists cherry picking story angles to grab public attention?
- Beattie, V. & Jones, M. (2002). The impact of graph slope on rate of change judgments in corporate reports. ABACUS, 38 (2), 177-199.
- Cairo, A. (2015). Graphics lies, misleading visuals: Reflections on the challenges and pitfalls of evidence-driven visual communication. In D. Bihanic (Ed.), New challenges for data design (pp. 103-116). Springer-Verlag, London.
- CanvasTV. (2015). Through the lens of Jimmy Kets: #BrusselsLockdown. Retrieved: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmbsXussxUc
- Diaz-Campo, J. & Segado-Boj, F. (2015). Journalism ethics in a digital environment: How journalistic codes of ethics have been adapted to the Internet and ICTs in countries around the world. Telematics and Informatics, 32(4), 735-744. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2015.03.004
- Elgot, J. (2015). Family of Syrian boy washed up on beach were trying to reach Canada. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/03/refugee-crisis-syrian-boy-washed-up-on-beach-turkey-trying-to-reach-canada
- Fallows, J. (2015). Blue Skies in Beijing This Week, Gray Skies Next Week: The Logic of Chinese Pollution. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2015/09/blue-skies-in-beijing-this-week-gray-skies-next-week-the-logic-of-chinese-pollution/403579/
- Smith, H. (2015). Alan Kurdi: friends and family fill in gaps behind harrowing images. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/03/refugee-crisis-friends-and-family-fill-in-gaps-behind-harrowing-images
- Smith, H. (2015). Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/02/shocking-image-of-drowned-syrian-boy-shows-tragic-plight-of-refugees
- Swienton, A.R. & Upshaw Downs, J.C. (2012). Ethics in Forensic Sciences, 425-440. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-385019-5.00017-8
- Ted-Ed. (2017). How to spot a misleading graph-Lea Gaslowitz. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E91bGT9BjYk&t=62s
- Withnall, A. (2015). Aylan Kurdi’s story: How a small Syrian child came to be washed up on a beach in Turkey. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/aylan-kurdi-s-story-how-a-small-syrian-child-came-to-be-washed-up-on-a-beach-in-turkey-10484588.html