School · Tingking Out Loud

Is it Fog or Pollution?

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:

  1. Hiding relevant data to highlight what benefits us
  2. Displaying too much data to obscure reality
  3. 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?

Alan_Kurdi_lifeless_body ADDITION Turkey Migrants

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)

Screen Shot 2017-11-28 at 22.01.59


If truth can be hard to obtain, how truthful were the journalists cherry picking story angles to grab public attention?




8 thoughts on “Is it Fog or Pollution?

  1. Nice blog! I like how much you did with the images included to give clear examples of the case. What I think about your statement is mainly that it might be possible that journalists just publish what they believe (maybe because they have seen other journalists publish it). Or they don’t have the time to check if what they are posting is actually true or just an idea that many others share. However, I do not think that it is a right thing to do: just publish, “without thinking”. I think journalists should dig a little bit deeper in the information they are willing to share with the world, because most people who read the news believe it. And then the readers will also get a specific idea about a specific topic even though they might have got other ideas if those were presented to them. So I think that journalists are quite influential and that they should post news articles with more care.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You illustrated the blogpost really well and it was easy to follow.
    I was also especially thinking about the part that you ask when journalism turned from evidence-driven to popularity-driven. I agree with you in criticising this development. Like @robintilburgs I believe that many journalists do not have time to check everything. In some cases they might just see something, get a feeling that this could be a catchy topic and just present it publically without further investigation. The more dramatic, the better. Unfortunately, news like this spread fastly in general and many people believe them without checking on it further themselves. In any way this is wrong, but I do not know if there will be a change soon in this kind of journalism. We all need to be critical.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I LOVE how you take your own experiences within your blogs. That is so nicely done and it makes it interesting to read. I think it is a difficult topic, because in the end it is a perceived reality of the journalists in some way. They might be telling the truth, but it may be the most interesting one. Which is not a good thing, in my opinion, because news should not be biased. Knowing whether someone is truthful or not, might be difficult, because a person might find that it really tried to tell the truth. I faced the same problem writing my own blog, but in the end I think most important is that a journalist tries to show the news as unbiased as possible. And not just a fraction, but all the aspects.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really like how you again used your own experience and knowledge to look at news stories that don’t match with you own experiences! Funny how you came with the Guardian as having so many different stories on one item, because I found two misleading graphs on their website, and I actually always thought of The Guardian as a reliable news source!
    I find your question hard to answer, since for example the pollution stories might be a “truth” for the journalists, they read articles on the subject, came to China and saw fog for a week, hence creating a truth in which the pollution is immense, whilst if they would have been there in another week, their truth might have been completely different. I think it is also hard to obtain truths for journalists because it might be a momentary view on which they need to built a truth, and this should not be the case. I am not really sure how this can be fixed, but I think it’s a really difficult matter.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I really like how you have given your blog consistency by using China as an overall topic and relating it to your personal experiences. Really well done! It is such a difficult topic because indeed journalism has become more an issue of popularity rather than one of presenting the facts in the correct way. Just this week the journalist for my fact checking project answered my email and he was very honest about his work. He admitted writing 3 or 4 stories every morning! meaning that he didn’t have enough time to fact check every story…he just followed his gut into what seemed to be like a reputable source versus others he might be more skeptical. If journalism is now about producing the most amount of “news” in the fastest possible way, without fact-checking or aiming at the truth, we should be far more critical of what we are reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very nice that you make your blog so personal. It makes the topic even more interesting to read about.
    If I would read this in an article: “You can’t see the skies they’re marching under, but all reports from Beijing say they are brilliant blue.” I would not immediately assume the reports are lying. This might be because I am a bit naive, but maybe it is because you have heard to many negative things about China. I don’t know what the authors of that article wrote furthermore, but this might just be a perfect example of framed perception!
    I totally agree with you on the part where you talk about how news sources that people believe to be fair and unbiased might now have personal agendas. I think this is a bad thing. National news sources who are believed to be objective should be objective. Other wise, how can regular people know what to believe and what not to? Journalists who only show one side and try to persuade their public with that do not seem truthful to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I really liked your blog! Your visuals and personal tone of voice make it extra interesting to read. I think that journalists are striving to publish articles which are attention-grabbing, of course they also are concerned with telling the trugth most of the time (if you don’t do that and you just come up with your own news I don’t think people can do that without any consequences). So I think that they pick certain aspects of the truth and build an interesting and intriguing story about this.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very clear and interesting topic although I think you could have just focused the fog example instead of the child on the beach. That picture went viral what makes it interesting for news media to post about it but also harder to trace the original post. The matter of the fog is changing the perspective we have on in this case China. I think it’s a good example of the kind of framing that the Belgium photographer in the video during class showed. News media make a story and choose the photo’s that go with that story.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s