Measurement Menace of the Month: The Media That Use Data to Deceive

This month’s Measurement Menace award goes to those in the media who use data to deceive. False or misleading scientific or measurement reports are bad enough, but a special circle of measurement hell is reserved for deceptive data in the news.

News doesn’t have to be fake to use data in a misleading way. Misleading data and charts are ubiquitous, in part because visuals are required to grab attention and rank high in Google Search, and because it is so easy to change perception with graphical sleight of hand.

Misleading use of data falsifies reality and erodes the public trust. For a good review, see “Lies, Damned Lies And Statistics: How Bad Statistics Are Feeding Fake News” at Forbes.com.

A classic example is when someone intentionally changes the x-axis to make the data look more dramatic. Or leaves out key data that might provide more context. For an exemplary specimen, see the chart up top from our fair and balanced friends at Fox News. The columns of the chart begin at 34%, giving the impression that the difference between the two columns is much more significant than the actual difference between 35% and 39.6%. You can find lots more examples of this sort of thing at Statistics How To.

Media outlets know how to grab readers’ attention with sexy graphics and visual effects. Our Menaces of the Month are those who distort the graphics to enhance their story. They should spend more time putting the data in context and making sure it is accurate. ∞

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