Bad Graphs

Graphs are supposed to simplify things and communicate a lot of information using one image. However, in some cases, graphs can be misleading, or informers can use them to skew data and create a narrative that never existed. In this post-truth era, where some topics can spread very fast through social media, a narrative can easily be spread. Informers use different techniques to mislead their audience (Is your picture worth a thousand words, 2018). One of the common technique that is used to mislead the audience either knowingly or unknowingly is the omission of baseline (Dolphins., 2018) Basically, the baseline of a graph should be 0 but writers can skew the perception of data by making the baseline a different number to come up with a truncated graph.

One of the best examples of misleading graphs by the omission of a baseline is a graph that CNN used to show the percentage of those who agreed with the court decision to remove Terry Schiavo from the life support machine after a court battle that took years. Because graphs give an impression at the first look, the graph was misleading because from the first view one would think that the number of democrats that agreed with the court decision tripled the number of republicans and Independents who agreed with the court decision (Dolphins., 2018). However, from a close look at the y-axis scale, you realize that the graph is truncated and the difference between the democrats with independents and Republicans who agree with the court decision is only 8% and not triple as the graph shows at the first sight. 

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misleading graph from real life.

Figure 1: misleading graph through omission of baseline

Source: Western Reserve Public Media (

To overcome such misleading errors, writers must seize omitting the baseline. In this case. If CNN could not have omitted the baseline, the audience could not have been misled at first sight before reading the scale on the y-axis. Given the fact that most people do not read the scale, thus, the impression is misleading (Dolphins., 2018). Therefore, the baseline should not have been omitted as shown in figure 2 below to avoid misleading the audience. 

misleading graphs

Figure 2: graph with the baseline at 0


Dolphins (2018). The Worst Graphs of 2017 your picture worth a thousand words?: How to present information for easy viewing and understanding. (2018).

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