A hat tip to David Parr for this piece from the Visual Communication Guy on how umemployment data was presented by the media. The graph below shows US unemployment as presented by Fox News. Although it may seem quite genuine at first glance if you look closely you will see that the spacing of the dates on the horizontal axis are not consistent but manipulated in such a way to give the impression of accelerating unemployment. Furthermore as it is presented on TV you are unlikely to have the chance to pick the axis as your eyes are fixated with the rising line.
While there certainly was an increase in unemployment from the end of 2007 to June 2009, the chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells a very different story than Fox News’ graphic. Although there is a steep increase in unemployment during the first 6 months of President Obama’s presidency, there was a plateauing and reason to suggest that the stimulus packages were starting to work.
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.
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?