Just like classic horror movies, graphs and visuals seem to haunt innocent bystanders at every turn. From checking the news on TV to viewing online advertisements, confusing charts seem to always pop up. Unlike any horror movie villain, however, these visuals don’t stop at omnipresence — they have also made constant misinformation a trademark. The intended readers of these graphs have become too blind to notice the lies spread by these media charts. The reality is that misrepresented facts are constantly displayed through graphs in the media, making it important for audiences to stay mindful of these visuals, especially in the time of “alternative facts.”
Photo: TFrank Busch on Unsplash
For instance, look at a graph published by The Weekly Standard in an article on welfare. Looking at the visual components on the graph, we can see that the size of the bars imply that around 300% more US citizens used welfare in 2011 than 2009, a staggering statistic. A closer look at the graph, however, reveals that the y-axis begins at 94 million, a true crime considering that the y-axis of any bar graph should always start from 0. Failure to start the y-axis at zero results in inflated bar sizes. When solely considering the numbers, the difference in welfare recipients from 2009 to 2011 was only about 10%. The startling difference between the facts portrayed by the graph and the facts given by the actual data is a troubling. Sadly, this is an effective tactic, as the graph could easily lead any reader to believe that the US had a severe welfare dependency crisis. Few news sites are immune to inaccurate visuals. Whenever someone wants to catch up on current events, misleading graphs are used on practically every news site… and it doesn’t stop at news. We’ve all bought an instant-blow-dryer-comb under the impression that it was “top quality” and “x times more effective than the competition” at least once. Fallacious charts aren’t the root of our poor shopping decisions, but they have proven to be capable of placing false impressions on consumers, causing them to purchase subpar items due to their flashy, yet inaccurate, graphs.
Though it is unlikely that journalists and advertisers will ever cease their publishing inaccurate visuals, it is possible for readers to avoid being lured into them. There are several common tactics used to make graphs misleading, including uneven y-axis increments, lack of axis labels, incorrect sizing of visuals in pictographs, information that is plotted wrong (yes, it has happened in major publications), and misinterpretation of the statistics. If people start looking out for these red flags, then we will not be so deceived by graphs anymore.
Deceptive graphs are very common in the media, which only emphasizes the importance of knowing which graphs are legitimate. If you learn what makes a chart misleading, you will be able to outsmart all of these graphs, and you can even guide modern audiences in the era of “alternative facts.”
Ore James is a high school student who's into books, politics, and green tea. You can usually find her browsing through scientific journals, buried in a novel, or keeping up with current events.