How News Media Manipulate Data: A Fox News Example

With as much trust as the average American puts into the news media, it probably goes without saying that the organizations that distribute the news have an ethical obligation to be as accurate and detail-oriented as possible. Unfortunately, the competition to get viewers often causes media outlets to skew news and data in order to spark conversation and increase viewership. Perhaps even more unfortunate, in a fairly media-savvy country, it is alarming how quickly we can be duped by misrepresented information. Media outlets often seem to be fully aware that the average American isn’t really that literate when it comes to visualized information. Because of that sad fact, many people have a somewhat innate trust mechanism that causes them to not evaluate the visualization of data.

Take this Fox News graphic as an example. Stare at it for a moment and try to identify anything you find “fishy” about it.

Fox News Unemployment Graphic
Graphic used by Fox News to communicate the unemployment rate since President Obama issued the economic stimulus packages in 2009.

At first glance, the graphic appears completely legitimate. In fact, in the amount of time the viewer watching this graphic has to see it flash on the screen, there is little the viewer could do to refute it. After all, Fox News cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics right on the graphic. It must be accurate, right?

At closer investigation, though, you’ll notice that there is a strange spacing of dates. When first looking at the information on the screen, you probably interpret the data to suggest a steady and unwavering increase in unemployment since the end of 2007. Of course, what this graphic does is spark a debate about the effectiveness of President Obama’s economic stimulus packages. According to the visual interpretation of the data, there has been an clear and steep increase in unemployment and there are no signs of it stopping.

So what about those spacing of dates?

You’ll notice, if you take the time to do the math, that the time between  the first data point and the second data point is roughly 9 months. The time between the second and third data points is only 6 months; between 3 and 4, it is a whopping 15 months! Based on the spacing of the points,  however, and the time most people would have to look at it on a TV screen, you would never gather that. The data becomes fishy at this point because we wonder if the increase really is steady, or if something happened during those large spaces in data.

Now take a look at the actual graphic supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment chart
Graphic supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to show unemployment rate during recession.

While there certainly was an increase in unemployment from the end of 2007 to June 2009, this chart tells a very different story than Fox News’ graphic. In the graphic supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we might gather that, after a steep increase in unemployment during the first 6 months of President Obama’s presidency, there was a plateauing. We might infer, in fact, that the stimulus packages actually worked.

I have, of course, singled out Fox News in this example, but many news media outlets do this. Whether or not you like Fox News or whether you agreed with President Obama’s stimulus packages is beyond the scope of this article. What matters is that we recognize how information is being presented to us and how easy it is for media gurus to tweak information to tell completely different stories with the same data. Technically, if Fox News were to be confronted about their graphic, they could probably legally talk themselves through the accuracy of their graphic. Each of the data points accurately represents the level of unemployment during the specified times, after all. But the impression left on viewers is harder to quantify.

We might ask ourselves: in a country where we strongly believe in freedom of speech, where do we draw the boundaries, if any, on the visual representation of data in the mass media? Where does the communication start to become unethical, and, at what point should unethical turn into illegal?