Friday, April 18, 2014

Down Is Up at Reuters

Did you hear about the odd chart that ran on Business Insider, though it was created by a Reuters graphic artist?

This graph accompanied a BI story about gun deaths in Florida after the passage of the nation's first Stand Your Ground law. The text of the story makes it clear that deaths went up suddenly after the law passed. But looking at the chart, you would think just the opposite happened.

That's because the Y axis runs in the opposite direction than it does conventionally. Here's a version submitted to BI that fixes it:

Oh, right, there's a spike after the law passes, not a decline.

Was this just a ploy to make it look as though the law decreased violence, kind of like the Fox News graph that truncated the ACA enrollments so it looked like hardly any had happened?

No, it appears to be a case of an incompetent graphic artist. Reuters designer Christine Chan said on Twitter that she was inspired by this graphic, which depicts the death toll of the Iraq war:

(click to see it larger)

Which would be all well and good, except for several major differences:

  • The Iraq art is a bar graph, not a fever graph. The many bars, with their rounded ends, look like dripping blood, which of course goes down, not up, and therefore makes the inversion make sense. Chan's fever graph, with its black line and big black dots at the data points, doesn't look like blood. There's no reason for it to be upside down.
  • The Iraq graph puts the Y axis labels at the top to call the reader's attention to it and make the inversion more obvious. Chan's does not.
  • The Iraq graph puts other graphs, in gray, over the white space, making it clear that white = background and red = foreground. On Chan's Stand Your Ground graph, it's reasonable for readers to see the white as foreground since there is no reason not to, given the usual up-down conventions used in graphs. 
 This is where an editor should have stepped in and required changes to the graph.

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