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A lesson from the New York Times on how to mislead with numbers

US Politics
and on 27 Comments
New York Times headquarters.

New York Times headquarters.

On July 31, 2014, the New York Times published an interactive article about the Israeli assault that was underway in Gaza. The conflict had claimed 1,472 lives by the publication date: 1,408 of them Palestinian, 64 Israeli.

In an expertly designed data visualization, the Times guided us through its own version of events, which boils down to: Hamas started it, and Israel responded in self-defense. Data from the last three flare-ups is included in the same way, gently suggesting to readers that this is a pattern.

What follows is a breakdown of some ways that design can be misused to tell a biased story. This New York Times article reminds us that design is just as much an editorial tool as it is a tool of aesthetics, usability and user experience. Use your power as a designer wisely.

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” –Ronald Coase

A common misconception about data journalism is that it’s somehow less biased than traditional print journalism. Use of data lends an air of objectivity and legitimacy to a piece of journalism, and that goes double when it’s beautifully visualized. The journalist who made this data–filled article must be being honest with us, because…data. The numbers can’t lie, right?

Let’s get into some of what we’ve learned from the interactive article in question:

1. Mislead With Proximity

Two pieces of data are visualized side by side in this article: total rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, and total deaths.

If you think cause and effect here, you’re wrong. But don’t feel bad, it’s not your fault.

If you think cause and effect here, you’re wrong. But don’t feel bad, it’s not your fault.

Anyone who doesn’t know a lot about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict would, considering the proximity of these two graphs, make the natural assumption that the rockets visualized on the left caused the deaths visualized on the right. Untrue.

By the Times’ own reporting, vastly more people were killed by Israeli airstrikes and ground aggression than were killed by Hamas rockets.

Someone with more background knowledge would realize that Hamas rockets didn’t kill the vast majority of these people, but they may infer from the visualization that the rockets justified Israel’s response as an act of self–defense. And if you didn’t think that, don’t worry — the Times included some helpful text [emphasis theirs] to make sure you get there: “The American government publicly supports Israel’s right to defend itself but warns against civilian casualties.”

Either way, that’s editorializing on the part of the Times. It might be suitable for an opinion piece (maybe by Bill O’Reilly?), but not for an article in the New York Times.

Whichever way you interpreted it, the Times used the proximity of these two datasets to suggest that responsibility for the deaths lies with the Palestinians.

2. Omit Confounding Data

Let’s talk more about responsibility.

Notice that the Times has chosen to show total deaths in both Israel and Gaza, but the data representing the violence that presumably caused these deaths is shown only on the Gaza side.

Data about Israeli military action?

Data about Israeli military action?

No corresponding data is included to depict Israel’s airstrikes or ground invasion. (Let alone the occupation.)

The idea that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict includes violence from both sides is not controversial. Everyone knows it. (Yes, everyone.) Why does the Times refuse to acknowledge it in its data visualization?

3. Obfuscate Inconvenient Data

Speaking of ignoring inconvenient information — you might have noticed that the graphs above show both Israeli and Palestinian deaths grouped together visually.

Hovering over a point will prompt a breakdown of how many deaths occurred on each side, written out in text, but there’s no visual representation of this information. If the reader does notice and choose to use this functionality, it’s a laborious task to extract the trend.

The breakdown of Israeli/Palestinian deaths is available only on hover, and is only shown in text, not visually. This design choice makes the data and the trend much more difficult to see.

The breakdown of Israeli/Palestinian deaths is available only on hover, and is only shown in text, not visually. This design choice makes the data and the trend much more difficult to see.

So why did the Times decide to do that, when it is a more natural design decision to color the two pieces of data differently, and thus reveal more information in a usable way?

Let’s see what happens when you do that:

Original Times graph on the left. What might have been on the right.

Original Times graph on the left. What might have been on the right.

The figure on the left is the original graph from the Times, and the one to the right is a mock-up of what it would have looked like had they chosen to separate Israeli and Palestinian deaths.

The graph to the right tells quite a different story, doesn’t it?

4. Manufacture Patterns

In each of the several steps marked in the article, data is included from the three most recent flare-ups in the Israel–Gaza conflict. The design is consistent throughout, with each dataset manipulated into the impossibly simplistic narrative presented.

The goal of this repetition is to make sure the reader agrees that not only is the Times’ narrative accurate for the most recent crisis, but that it also constitutes a well–established pattern: Hamas started it, and Israel responded in self-defense.

It works, too:

5. Don’t Forget The Old-Fashioned Way

Once you’ve done all of the above, don’t forget you can always further manipulate how viewers perceive your data using leading text. Just to make sure everybody really gets it.

Let’s take a look at the very first sentence in this article: “Since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip…” [emphasis added].

Almost the entire international community agrees that Israel is currently imposing an occupation on Gaza. However, the Times piece insists that its readers begin with the simplistic premise that “Israel withdrew.”

Other phrases in the article are similarly misleading. For instance, reports of Israeli military action are frequently tempered with language providing some sort of reason or justification. Take the below headline: “After persistent rocket fire from Gaza, Israel launches air campaign…” Read: Gaza was asking for it.

Israeli aggression is frequently “justified” in the article text. Similar justification is not included for Hamas violence. Editorializing much?

Israeli aggression is frequently “justified” in the article text. Similar justification is not included for Hamas violence. Editorializing much?

The Israel–Palestine conflict is a complex struggle, a series of actions and reactions that has spawned decades of violence. Every act has a reason behind it – probably many reasons – and if the Times sees fit to justify Israeli airstrikes with Hamas rocket fire, it is their obligation to also cite the reasons for that rocket fire. At the very least, this should include acknowledgement of the occupation.

If, on the other hand, they decide that getting into reasons is too complex for their scope, they should be consistent and provide no justifications for either side.

As this article includes attempts to justify Israeli violence both visually and through text while providing no similar justifications for Hamas, the result is a completely one–sided story.

Some of the news that’s fit to print.

Clip from 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media

 

The Read Lesson: The Power of Design

The real lesson of this New York Times interactive article is that design is just as much an editorial tool as it is a tool of aesthetics, usability and user experience.

An institution like the New York Times is a powerhouse of design and analytical talent, as well as public trust. The Times is at the top of the field when it comes to data visualization: While other legacy news organizations struggle to produce information graphics that are legible (let alone compelling), the Times has created some of the most beautiful and informative pieces on the web. As such, they have a responsibility to use their considerable talents responsibly.

That goes for all designers, journalists, data visualizers — anyone who works with data to communicate with the public. When you’re designing a data–driven narrative, make sure the story you’re trying to reveal is the story the data is actually telling.

If you have to torture the data to get it to say what you want, it might just be trying to get you to stop.

And please, listen to it. Stop.

A version of this post originally appeared at Medium

Anna Flagg
About Anna Flagg

Anna Flagg is a data journalist at Al Jazeera's new digital project, AJ+. Previously she worked with news organizations including ProPublica, the Center for Responsive Politics, and the Citizen Engagement Lab. See more of her work at http://www.annaflagg.com. @annaflagg

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Moiz Syed
About Moiz Syed

Moiz Syed is a user experience designer at the Wikimedia Foundation and a Knight Prototype Fund recipient for his project How Wrong You Are. Before joining the Wikimedia Foundation, he was designing for Hipmunk. See more of his work at http://moiz.ca. @moizsyed

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27 Responses

  1. Les
    Les
    April 21, 2015, 3:31 pm

    Did the Times also report that the Nazis had every right to retaliate against the Jewish terrorists of the Warsaw Ghetto for daring to shoot at their occupiers?

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      April 22, 2015, 3:52 pm

      Les, look at the way the “cumulative deaths” went up every time those “Jewish terrorists” fired! The correlation is inescapable!

  2. eljay
    eljay
    April 21, 2015, 3:36 pm

    In an expertly designed data visualization, the Times guided us through its own version of events, which boils down to: Hamas started it, and Israel responded in self-defense.

    It’s funny how the “versions of events” never seem to take into account the fact that Israel has been stealing, occupying and colonizing Palestinian land and oppressing, torturing and killing Palestinians for almost 70 years and with impunity.

    In other news, the Times has determined that in a recent altercation between the rapist and the victim chained in his basement – in which the victim punched and kicked at the rapist and he, in turn, beat her to a bloody pulp – the victim started it and the rapist responded in self-defence.

  3. Boomer
    Boomer
    April 21, 2015, 4:01 pm

    Thanks for this brilliant analysis of the NYT’s reporting. We knew it was slanted, but without such searching analysis, the skill involved in producing the bias would not be readily visible. The NYT employs some of the best and brightest, well able to give us the best propaganda.

  4. chet
    chet
    April 21, 2015, 4:26 pm

    Time after time, when these types of misleading statistics were cited in the comments sections of the NYT, WaPo and The Guardian, during Israel’s last murderous assault, the one question that could bring the debate to a standstill was the repeated demand to specify the number of Israeli deaths caused by Qassams.

  5. Pauline
    Pauline
    April 21, 2015, 4:59 pm

    The New York Times is part of the Zionist machine and has proved itself to be completely unreliable at best when it comes to reporting on Israel/Palestine. Jodi Rudoren, the Times bureau chief in Jerusalem, is nothing but a propagandist for the Israeli government. Kudos to Anna Flagg and Moiz Syed for their expert analysis of the Times’ manipulation of Gaza data~!

    • Les
      Les
      April 21, 2015, 6:06 pm

      Indeed the ownership of most of our print and broadcast media outlets by Jewish Zionists, is what makes that media the key component of the Israel Lobby. Creating news and thereby creating public opinion is vastly more valuable than the financiial contributions of any and all billionaires.

      • DoubleStandard
        DoubleStandard
        April 22, 2015, 7:34 am

        I thought Mondoweiss does not allow anti-Semitism? Obviously anti-Semitism is the raison d’etre of this blog, but its supposed to be limited to anti-Semitism in the context of Israel. I guess such loose restrictions are still too encumbering to the class of people on here.

        Also — which news stations are owned by Zionist Jews? The NYT is owned by Jews I believe — what else?

      • CigarGod
        CigarGod
        April 22, 2015, 10:27 am

        Boy, have you got a lot of catching up to do.
        Better get to it.

      • eljay
        eljay
        April 22, 2015, 10:28 am

        || DoubleStandard: I thought Mondoweiss does not allow anti-Semitism? … ||

        You’re right: It’s surprising that JeffB is still permitted to post on MW, given his blatantly anti-Semitic assertion – which, to date, only one Zio-supremacist (y.f.) has bothered to refute – that all Jews are responsible for the actions of some Jews.

      • OyVey00
        OyVey00
        April 22, 2015, 10:49 am

        @DoubleStandard

        There you go: https://i.imgur.com/oSfmoLu.jpg

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        April 22, 2015, 3:41 pm

        ” I guess such loose restrictions are still too encumbering to the class of people on her”

        Sorry, DS, don’t quite savvy. What “class of people” is on Mondoweiss.
        Are you trying to tell us something about Mondo, or are you just trying to point out what a moral coward you are? I believe you have already established that.

        S, what “class of people” do we have here? Wanna tell us?

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        April 22, 2015, 4:00 pm

        “You’re right: It’s surprising that JeffB is still permitted to post on MW,”

        And what about that guy who described Jews thus: “different food, even their sexual behavior was different.” – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/profile/jon-s#sthash.G0XWOGpQ.dpuf

        He gives me the willies.

      • DoubleStandard
        DoubleStandard
        April 23, 2015, 12:34 pm

        Well, the kind of people who seem to get physically stimulated when they hear BDS is doing well (“doing well” means convincing some pathetic ethnic studies association to boycott Israel). Most of the people on here are quite disturbed and should seek psychological inquiry as to why Israel is the most pressing issue in their life.

        I’m quite glad you asked the question, actually.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        April 24, 2015, 2:58 pm

        “I’m quite glad you asked the question, actually.”

        And you certainly didn’t disappoint me in your answer, DS. It’s everything I thought it would be. You should get a job as a trout.

        Don’t forget to check Hophmi’s comment archive DS. You will find ream’s of analysis of the psychological shortcomings of the Editor and staff.

    • CigarGod
      CigarGod
      April 22, 2015, 8:51 am

      NYT and our other media seem pretty “reliable” to me. Unless you write/edit in the approved way, you are gone. But, I suspect reliabilty is insured with staff who are trained in various agencies.

  6. oldgeezer
    oldgeezer
    April 21, 2015, 5:08 pm

    Figures lie and liars figure. If they want to hype the number of rockets they should show the number of artillery shells and bombs dropped on gaza. If the addressed the proportinality in tonnage and explosive power that would be even better.

  7. ritzl
    ritzl
    April 21, 2015, 5:56 pm

    Great critique/correction.

    In addition, a holistic timeline of violence and fatalities would amplify your poInts. Something like Yousef Munayyer did at his “Permission to Narrate” blog.

    http://blog.thejerusalemfund.org/2012/10/israel-and-gaza-context-behind.html?m=1

    It shows that when you consider ALL occupation violence over time, Israel “invariably” fires/kills first and Palestian rockets are a response. The above link was for Gaza in 2012, but 2008 and 2014 follow the same pattern.

    Also, this isn’t only about Gaza, which makes the NYT “reporting” even more egregiously manipulative. In the couple of months prior to GazaSlaughter2014 there 13 (iirc) Palestinians killed by Israel in the WB, most in a completely fictitious “search” for three kids the GoI knew were dead. Gaza cannot be taken or analyzed, let alone understood, in isolation.

    But the NYT is never going to undertake anything close to that exercise, so the articles’s point about lowest-common-denominator “simplicity” is well made.

    • Donald
      Donald
      April 21, 2015, 6:04 pm

      If Hamas rocket fire killed 2000 Israelis, the majority civilian, including 500 children, the NYT would think it an obscenity to point to some much lesser act of Israeli violence as a provocation.

      I often wonder if they are deliberately and consciously deceptive, or if the bias is buried so deep in how they think it just comes out that way. Could be a bit of both, I guess.

      • ritzl
        ritzl
        April 22, 2015, 5:09 pm

        Aye, Donald.

        “I often wonder if they are deliberately and consciously deceptive, or if the bias is buried so deep in how they think it just comes out that way.”

        I used to mentally vibrate between those poles, but now it’s more between “deliberately” and “doesn’t matter.”
        Hostage’s (and talknic, and tree, and so many others; I should know better than to name names) body of work here and elsewhere cemented the “deliberately” pole (Thanks Hostage/all.).

        In the end, the result is the same – perpetuating an advantaged (supremacist, in eljay-speak), oppressive, murderous, expansionist status quo.

        Shorter version: Nobody is that dense, but accusations are distractions.

        It’s good you all provide these ongoing corrections. It’s important to maintain that record for future historians to analyze when, where, and how the break from reality occurred and how quickly and widely the divergence propagated forward.

        Thanks.

      • eljay
        eljay
        April 23, 2015, 11:09 am

        || Donald: … I often wonder if they are deliberately and consciously deceptive, or if the bias is buried so deep in how they think it just comes out that way. … ||

        IMO, zio-supremacists and their supporters know that what they’re doing is wrong – they know they wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of the sh*t they give out – but they just don’t care. And that’s what makes their immorality even more hateful.

  8. wfleitz
    wfleitz
    April 22, 2015, 9:50 am

    This is par for the course for the NY Times. I used to subscribe to LOOT (LIes of our Times) back in the late 80s early 90s which detailed regular Times obfuscation in service to the powerful. From Wikipedia: “In 1995, Lies of Our Times won the Orwell Award, given out annually by the National Council of Teachers of English for outstanding contributions to the critical analysis of public discourse. Among its most esteemed contributors was Noam Chomsky, who penned a regular “Letter from Lexington” for the magazine.”

  9. unverified__596d4hl8
    unverified__596d4hl8
    April 22, 2015, 4:33 pm

    Nice analysis.

    Here’s a link to a website whose sole purpose is to deconstruct the biased coverage of the NY Times re: Palestine: . I recommend it highly.

    http://timeswarp.org

  10. maiselm
    maiselm
    April 23, 2015, 1:44 am

    An excellent analysis. Thank you, Anna and Moiz!

  11. piotr
    piotr
    April 27, 2015, 9:12 am

    Misleading with numbers is relatively ineffective because most of the public is innumerate. Of course, you can write anything and pick a chart as an illustration.

    More typical is flat-out misleading. An article in today’s Op-Ed section, “Iran Won’t Give Up on Its Revolution” has this sentence: “Iran’s imperial ambitions are not new. Under the Safavids, the Shah and the mullahs alike, Tehran has vied for regional domination.” A naive person would think that since this is in an article written by three experts, it must be true, at least to the extend that is easy to check. In fact, during the reign of Safavids (a dynasty in 16-18 centuries), Tehran was an “unimportant village”. In any case, this bizarre article find faults in anything that Iran does, say, not cooperating with Azerbaijan and Turkey in the siege of Armenia: siding with Armenians, how vile one can get! Interestingly, most such dodgy Op-Eds in NYT, including that one, have no option of writing comments.

    So citizens, countrymen, we have bombed Tehran to smithereens cause Tehran was ambitious. How rare! How vile!

    • CigarGod
      CigarGod
      April 27, 2015, 9:54 am

      Most of the public is “Innumerate”?
      Can you help me with how you are using the word?

  12. traintosiberia
    traintosiberia
    April 28, 2015, 9:04 am

    This is one of the great achievement of the Zionist . Much more than manipulating ,it actually creates data and suppresses data to suit its interest particularly in creating the impression that there are.,there has been and will likely continue to be so same : the massive bipartisan grassroot support for Zionism ( Israel) transcending color,religion,ethnicity,and geography ,
    Americans by big margin support negotiations with Iran. The American actually never disliked the idea of reaching to any foe . Even the idea of attacking Iraq was not high until mid 2002 . Then the game of shaping the argument and increasing the support for war started
    Today Iran shows same trajectory
    . http://www.quinnipiac.edu/news-and-events/quinnipiac-university-poll/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=2222 Despite the support their are undercurrents of the activities to torpedo the negotiation and attack Iran.
    In 2007 AIPAC delegates were salivating at the prospect of a war against Iran: ” We wil do to Iran what we did to Saddam ” ( Salon.com)
    That was th time Netanyahu,Levy,and American lawmakers openly were discussing in the same AIPAC summit of the me hanism that were being brought in place to squeeze Iran through financial sanction and divestment.
    By 2007 Americans were regretting of going to Iraq. It didn’t bother the Zionist and didn’t evoke a reaction from the media that a replay was in the offing .

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