Bars to understanding

9 Nov

What’s going on with this graph in the Mail?

It says “Tory poll lead falls after standards row”, but it seems to show the Tories pulling well ahead of their hated rivals, the Tories, while Labour loses ground inexorably to the Labour party of last week.

Squinting at the small print, we discover that the lighter coloured bars represent the current polling, and the darker bars the previous week’s results. However, the later figures have been placed to the left of the earlier ones, not the right, in reverse chronological order – a methodology applied equally to all parties, but one which, visually, gives the opposite impression to what’s intended. It looks like a picture of continued blue success and red failure.

Similarly, what does this graph, from March, suggest to you is happening?

The correct answer is that the Tories have moved out to 45% of the vote and Labour has fallen back to 32%. But is that what you initially “see”? The Tories look to be declining and Labour surging. Isn’t it more usual to place the later figures on the right, as the eye tracks naturally from left to right across the page? And don’t the wide gaps between the different parties encourage you to compare their performance against themselves, rather than the opposition? Also, the brighter blue seems to count as a “dark” colour, but the brighter red a “light” one: going just by what’s most eyecatching, don’t you end up comparing 39% with 35% in the first graph and 45% with 36% in the second, neither of which represents the correct gap?

This isn’t some effort to obfuscate unfavourable findings, or try some Lib Dem-style sharp practice with the visuals: the Mail has been angered by the Owen Paterson/sleaze debacle, and first graph appears under this uncompromising headline:

It just seems that they always do them this way. But in the absence of any visible x-axis, readers are naturally going to read it from left to right, because that’s how nearly all x-axes run in every other graph. Why flip it for this?

4 Responses to “Bars to understanding”

  1. Picky November 12, 2021 at 2:31 pm #

    Odd, isn’t it? Presumably the graph is produced by some app? And someone’s cocked up the input? Can’t surely be intended, can it? And if a human error, what has happened to the Mail’s infamously noisy people management? Can a change of helmsman to a less extraordinary character be at fault?

    • edlatham November 12, 2021 at 5:40 pm #

      Our graphs are still produced by human hand, but who knows what they get up to over there? I too am surprised there hasn’t been some kind of Dacre-ing or post-Dacre-ing

  2. Picky November 21, 2021 at 9:37 am #

    Powerful blog, this. Heads have rolled.

    • edlatham November 21, 2021 at 12:37 pm #

      Rothermere must have firmer views on infographics than anyone suspected!

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