26
Nov

The statisticians at Fox News use classic and novel graphical techniques to lead with data

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Depending on where you land in the political spectrum you may either love or despise Fox News. But regardless of your political affiliation, you have to recognize that their statisticians are well-trained in the art of using graphics to persuade folks of a particular viewpoint. I'm not the first to recognize that the graphics department uses some clever tricks to make certain points. But when flipping through the graphs I thought it was interesting to highlight some of the techniques they use to persuade. Some are clearly classics from the literature, but some are (as far as I can tell) newly developed graphical "persuasion" techniques.

Truncating the y-axis

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and

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This is a pretty common technique for leading the question in statistical graphics, as discussed here and elsewhere.

Numbers that don't add up

I'm not sure whether this one is intentional or not, but it crops up in several places and I think is a unique approach to leading information, at least I couldn't find a reference in the literature. Basically the idea is to produce percentages that don't add to one, allowing multiple choices to have closer percentages than they probably should:

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or to suggest that multiple options are all equally likely, but also supported by large percentages:

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Changing the units of comparison

When two things are likely to be very similar, one approach to leading information is to present variables in different units. Here is an example where total spending for 2010-2013 is compared to deficits in 2008. This can also be viewed as an example of not labeling the axes.

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Changing the magnitude of units at different x-values

Here is a plot where the changes in magnitude at high x-values are higher than changes in magnitude at lower x-values. Again, I think this is actually a novel graphical technique for leading readers in one direction.

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To really see the difference, compare to the graph with common changes in magnitude at all x-values.

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Changing trends by sub-sampling x values (also misleading chart titles)

Here is a graph that shows unemployment rates over time and the corresponding chart with the x-axis appropriately laid out.

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One could argue these are mistakes, but based on the consistent displays of data supporting one viewpoint, I think these are likely the result of someone with real statistical training who is using data in a very specific way to make a point. Obviously, Fox News isn't the only organization that does this sort of thing, but it is interesting to see how much effort they put into statistical graphics.

  • edwardlahoa

    I think you meant to say "techniques to MISlead with data."

  • Martin Sallge

    In the case of "Changing the magnitude of units at different x-values," it looks to me like only the last data point has not been plotted correctly. Still open to discussion whether that was on purpose or not.

    • aaronmhill

      I agree -- that is not mislabeled, that is outright fraud. All of the other datapoints except the last one that contradicts their narrative look consistently in line with the y-axis.

    • 75th

      The second or third one is wrong as well; from 9.0 to 8.9 to 8.8 should be a straight line.

      • 49th

        75th : While I would be inclined to agree with you, given my distaste for Fox. That is not necessarily true. They could (could) have rounded those for the labeling and chosen to graph accurately. One would have to look up the actual numbers to confirm or reject that. But, theoretically, it could have been a situation where the 8.9 was really 8.85 and the 8.8 could have been as high as 8.849.

        However, given that all of the 9.1s at the end of the graph are marked in a dead straight line, it seems more likely that this was either one more innocent mistake of the statistically hapless, or one more misleading data point...

  • TheEponymousBob

    In the "Growth of Government Spending" chart, they have labelled 2008-2010 as "avg", which I take to mean average per year, rather than total spending for 2008-2010, as suggested by the text. Still somewhat misleading, but not quite as bad as implied. Of course I have no idea whether the figures are accurate, since I don't consider outright lies beneath them.

  • Ben

    Those "numbers that don't add up" ones are hilarious - the first adding up to 120%, the second adding up to a whopping 193%. It wouldn't surprise me if the survey behind the second allowed people to choose multiple candidates, so showing a lot of double counting (i.e. people who chose X, Y + X and Z + X all getting counted as X).

    Never mind the figures in the "Growth in government spending" graph, it's interesting that they chose 1943-5 plus 2008-13, omitting most of the GW Bush era as well as Bill Clinton's two terms - perhaps inclusion of them would have told a different tale? Oh, and never mind that during 1943-5 the USA happened to be fighting World War II, so I imagine a fair proportion of that growth in spending was on the military (even back then, military equipment probably didn't come cheap!)

    • Krafticus

      (In reply to your first paragraph) Try reading the article. That's exactly what the author says.

  • JohnDoe

    The "misleading chart title" should read "grossly incorrect chart title". Job losses are NOT total unemployed.

    Also note the unemployment data for each quarter is freely available from BLS. Cherry-picking four months' data when one could easily show the whole series could indicate i) Huff-ian efforts to skew the story ii) inability to draw/interpret a graph with more than 4 data points iii) ignorance of the fact that BLS publishes the whole series. Or some combination. None of them is very impressive.

  • http://twitter.com/CitizenObservr OccupyYourLocalMedia

    Numbers? Let's talk about numbers.

    1927 FOX was born

    1932 FOX Movietone helped create political propaganda films for Adolf Hitler

    1970's Roger Ailes conceives of a right wing news propaganda organization that would spin the facts in favor of conservatives

    1996 Roger Ailes helps launch FOX News

    2000 FOX declares G W Bush president.

    2000 In Florida, FOX sued for and won the right to lie in the Jane Akre / Monsanta case

    2001 - 2009 FOX News repeats talking points crafted by the Grandson of the man who helped bankroll the Nazi's, George W Bush's White House (source: Scott McClellan)

    2007 Rupert Murdoch admits manipulating the news in favor of the Iraq War of choice

    2009 - present FOX sheds any pretense of balanced reporting and goes full throttle with right wing conspiracies and falsehoods

    2011 - News Corp gets embroiled in international scandal involving multiple subsidiaries of its company in hacking into computers, voice mails, and emails stretching back as early as 2004 when then New Jersey US Attorney and personal confidant to Roger Ailes Chris Christie refused to prosecute News America when they were caught hacking into their competitor's computers.

    What a terrible history for any media company. But it is particularly troublesome that FOX can outright break the laws of several countries and not have to suffer any consequences of their actions. Not only that, but who do you think stands to gain the most from the Citizens United decision? That's right, FOX. It is because they are a part of the machinery known as The Beast.

    Using a simplified english version of ancient hebraic gematria, one can obtain the value of each letter of the alphabet as one digit. And with that reduction, there are only three letters in the English alphabet which can be reduced to SIX: F, O, and X. Behold:

    F = 6

    O = 15 = 1+5 = 6

    X = 24 = 2+4 = 6

    F.O.X. = 6.6.6.

    Believe it or not, go ahead try it yourself. And remember words do not get reduced together, just individual letters.

    http://www.facebook.com/f6o6x6

    • rgmz

      Haha, this reminds me of Klaus Wagner's https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klaus_Wagner_(conspiracy_theorist) ERII calculation.

    • gjgustav

      You'd make a good fortune teller.

    • Teddy

      F = A
      O = S
      X = S
      N = H
      E = O
      W = L
      S = E
      S = S

    • Roger

      They did at least suffer consequences in the UK. Look up "Rebekah Brooks" and "The News of the World".

      P.S. I was with you all the way until you started on the numerology nonsense.

  • Sidade

    no, look at the 1st 2 data points there. The first one is labeled as 9.0, the second at 8.9, and the third at 8.8. If the difference between the 1st and 2nd data point and the 2nd and 3rd data point are the same, shouldn't the slope of the line be the same too? Seems like as soon as the value drops to 8.8 or lower, there is severe misplotting of the points...

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.young.961 David Young

    Are these taken from a random sample of FOX News charts? Doesn’t
    seem so. I think you are the one trying to mislead people into drawing wrong
    statistical conclusions via a non representative sample.

    • DanielP

      Why on earth would you need a random sample? If you want to catch someone lying, would you pick up phrases said at any random moment one day and check their veracity? Or would you listen to that person carefully and count their lies? Representative sample for lies? Boy, YOU must have been watching Fox News for a long time...

    • http://twitter.com/jsndacruz Jason DaCruz

      Can't tell if joking or serious... Will need a larger sample.

      • Kresten Johansen

        lol. Will need a larger RANDOM sample of his posts...

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  • Xavier Q.

    Hey Bro,

    Awesome post.

    What was your sample size?
    What are the numbers behind the "consistent" in "consistent displays"?
    Statistically speaking, what does "likely" in "I think these are likely the result" mean? How did you *know*, man?!

    keep up the good work!

    X

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  • Ken

    It is well known that 83% of the population understand percentages, while 64% don't.

    • beryy

      um... what?

    • MG

      That's like, half.

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  • http://twitter.com/awendt André Wendt

    Truncating the y-axis is not specific to Fox News. That's a very common technique, it's used everywhere. In fact, I can't remember when I've last seen a graph *without* it. Even Google Finance does it—just look up any stock!

    Makes me mad every single time...

    • Krafticus

      Hence why the author states it's a 'classic technique' that is used often. He never says it's exclusive to FOX, he just says it's misleading and uses it as an example of various misleading FOX graphs.

  • T-man

    Nothing to do with the numbers, but did anyone catch the picture for 1943, 1944, and 1945 in the "Growth of Government Spending" screen? It's Truman! He didn't take office until 1945 (and the 1945 budget would have been FDR's) and wasn't even V.P. in 1943 and 1944.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jpaige1 James Paige

      They shift blame to people who not even in office. Because people are too lazy to research the facts. The reason Bush gets away with not spending, is that the war was not in the budget. It was emergency spending.

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  • @Ritholtz

    astonishing -- thanks for posting

  • Jim

    Too bad the final statement "Fox News isn't the only organization..." is made as an afterthought. The misuse of statistics by all new orgs and politicians is disgusting. But only pointing it out in the one makes this writer just as guilty as Fox by leading the reader to believe it only happens there.

    • Dave Shevett

      Feel free to post correlated data from other sources that shows such blatant disregard for accuracy.

      • Randy

        It's incumbent on the author of this half-assed pseudo study to support his claims, not his unfortunate readers.

        As for the half-assedness:

        * Look at the second graph under "Changing trends by sub-sampling x values". Where does the Y axis start? At 6, that's where, thus violating the first sin here, "Truncating the y-axis".

        * For an article on a blog named "Simply Statistics" it's remarkably devoid of any. He claims that these examples are representative, but forgets to mention the sample size. It would be easier to believe in the existence of a statistical mastermind if s/he could be shown to be acting consistently.

        • Thomas Stearns

          That's got to be the lamest defense ever. You dont need to be proved tbe a fraud "statistically sufficient" number of times over your life time to be called a fraud. Some of those graphs are clearly intentional and reflect really poorly on Fox's opinion of people who thought would buy them -

          So please spare us your misplaced indignation.

          • Randy

            In essence, you have said: "A single instance of statistical misconduct is sufficient to establish a fraudulent nature."

            Look up "principle." I'll wait..

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle

            Will you condemn any organization I can find with a "Truncated y-axis" on their web site?

            with all due respect,

            Randy

            P.S. Thank you for your endorsement of my critique as world-class ("blah blah blah EVER").

            P.P.S. When the word "lamest" hit my visual cortex, I felt the impact of a thousand Recovery Summers!

          • http://www.facebook.com/richie.blac Richie Blac

            Randy:

            The core of your argument is criticizing his "sample size" -- a plea for a show of greater consistency -- which is admittedly a fair approach, but oversimplified when considered contextually.

            We're not talking about a study about biological behaviors, or chemical reactions between elements. We're talking about a hypothesis that, if true, is being committed by human beings that know how to strategize and deceive.

            The article isn't in-depth, and doesn't really need to be, because it's pointing out a means of easy equivocation over sensitive matters. It defies verisimilitude that this would occur without an intention to cause spin.

            In other words: It wasn't the greatest article, but it made a pretty blatant point that doesn't really beg for more support, so you're just coming off like a moron -- despite your grammatical elitism.

          • Thomas Stearns

            : In essence, you have said: "A single instance of statistical misconduct is sufficient to establish a fraudulent nature."

            Yes, as against some people who might look at graph 6 and see 8.6% unemployment represented at a flat line to 9% unemployment at a crucial defining time in the country's politics - and will think of hiring three undergrads from MIT to run regression tests to establish correlation to bad intent - and in the meantime, they have their irrelevant wikipedia articles to give them a veneer of respectability in open forums.
            Whats hitting your visual cortex by the way is called the flash of the blindingly obvious - the result of the statistical tests you started running last summer.

          • Randy

            If you wanted to *really* slam the President, you'd want to show the Y-axis going from zero alllll the way up to 8-9% territory--no need to fudge the Y values. You might plot the admin's predicted unemployment rate underneath the actual rate, and fill the gulf between the two with the angry, hollow-cheeked faces of formerly middle-class white people.

            So you might say that the author of that graph blew it twice. Once by hiding that awesome 8.6% unemployment rate, and again by missing the opportunity to give the President a sound kick in the nads.

          • http://www.facebook.com/steve.cook.125 Steve Cook

            Romney lost.

        • Ray

          The second graph you mention with the y-axis starting at 6? If the graph did have a y-axis starting at zero, the author's point would have been even more emphasized, meaning the subtlety of the change from the final two points on Fox's graph would have been even more apparent.

          • Randy

            Hi Ray,

            Your zero-tolerance approach ("only one example is enough") might get you into trouble here. Pick your favorite news or political organization. If I can find "only one example" of Fox-grade graphical idiocy, will you condemn them here as being "as dishonest as Fox News"? Danger ahead!

            Here's what I see: the author established that Fox produced seven atrocious graphics. Several of them are meant to deceive, certainly. I guess I see garden-variety journalistic dishonesty and incompetence, rather than the hand of a statistical super-villain (as the author claimed). It would be interesting to know whether Fox graphics were especially awful. The author doesn't really help us to know.

            Truncating the y-axis: I just noticed that the author makes this mistake twice, not once. It's just ironic that he starts out by condemning Fox as a pack of dirty Y-axis-truncators, then truncates the Y-axis, two times. And yeah, if he'd gotten that right, Fox would have looked worse.

            cheers,

            Randy

          • Ray

            I didn't intend my comments as an attack on Fox News, specifically. Anyone who plays tricks with stats to elicit fear and paranoia should be ashamed, and it's not just Fox that's guilty. I can appreciate the authors efforts to provide a context to view any graphical representation with a healthy dose of cynicism, regardless of the source.

          • DAC224

            Thing is, how is he going to point out every instance of these terrible graphics? During the election coverage, Fox news and affiliates were doing their best to hide statistics by mostly reporting on the polls best for Romney and ignoring others. Additionally, they intentionally promoted the idea that Romney was winning the popular vote during a time when all reason said, "there are still many votes unaccounted for in large, liberal cities while there are fewer conservative area votes to count -- much fewer." A lot of people went to bed disgusted with the electoral college while those of us with a brain knew Obama had the popular vote based on the trend of the numbers and the identity of the remainder of the voting pool. For months Fox was pulling this kind of crap during a very critical time. Add that with this blog post and honestly you've got no point. This wasn't a scientific investigation or peer reviewed journal submission, so lay off.

        • Ray

          As for your sample size concern, when a person is caught murdering someone, do you arrest them then, or wait to see if his behavior is part of a larger pattern? When you consider the seriousness of the offense, only one example is enough. Several examples are just damning. How many more do you need?

        • jackster12

          Randy,

          It's true that it would have been better reporting not to single out just Fox, if indeed "other news orgs" do this. Or, if it's not the case, to adequately prove Fox does it more than others (which would involve finding the stats you're asking for).

          But do let's be fair: None of the above refutes the finding that, yes, this is a self-designated news organization that has, in each of these instances, willingly and consciously distorted the news.

          Setting aside whether it's a distortion that supports or challenges one's personal opinions, do we really want to let journalists do that -- either a lot or a little -- without taking them to task?

          I won't speak for you, but personally I wouldn't want even my supporting evidence to be based on fallacies. Much better, in my opinion, to make decisions based on unadulterated truth.

          Don't you agree?

          • Randy

            I might chalk some of it up to astounding cluelessness (Palin v. Huckabee v. Romney, WTF?). But yeah, you're right.

        • garethadams

          Randy, I think the reason the y-axis was truncated on the two graphs you talk about, was because those y-axes have been copied from the corresponding graph that they're being compared against.

          Since the author was trying to make a point about abusing the x-axis, I think you'll agree that it would have been *more* confusing if he'd changed both axes at the same time to make that point.

          You're right that the y-axis shouldn't be truncated, and as that was the first point made in the article it seems like it was probably not necessary to mention that error in the other source graphs.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Samantha-Patterson/100000876004192 Samantha Patterson

          It is the author's job to do your research for you?
          Your intellectual laziness his his job?
          Or is what you are saying more along the lines of "I want to discredit this but have no way to do it so I'll resort to same name calling and distraction."

          Sample-size could easily be cherry-picked. If he said "Based on 38% of FOX infographics, you or some troll like you would be asking 'which 38%' as a means of trying to hold onto your cognitive dissonance. The information being presented is factual not statistical.

          It is an observation on the way that graphics can be distorted to mislead the casual reader. All of the samples the author used happened to be from FOX. The author gave full-disclosure of the potential for bias from other sources. There is no argument here. You are simply offended because the facts are solid and it happens to disagree with your political position (or at least, based on your defensiveness this would be my assumption)

          How about rather than screaming like a small child, you simply take the information that was offered and use it to view all news sources and hey maybe even computer specs, MPG ratings on cars, loan offers, etc. News media afterall are not the only people who try to trick the casual reader.

          Finally, consider this: If you are indeed some conservative ninny throwing a tantrum, then take some comfort. If this post is read and shared by liberals and the evil liberal media is guilty of the same things, some percentage of liberal readers will now be more aware of how information is misrepresented and more likely to spot the lies you believe they are being fed.

          If you look past the hurt of being woken up to the con that's been pulled on you, then you'll see that knowledge is a double-edged sword that can aid your position as well as hurt it.

          Anyhow, if you ignore the politics of singling out FOX, wouldn't you RATHER live in a world of more conscious, cautious, and well-informed people?

        • Gath Gealaich

          "* Look at the second graph under "Changing trends by sub-sampling x
          values". Where does the Y axis start? At 6, that's where, thus violating
          the first sin here, "Truncating the y-axis"."

          This particular graph demonstrates the influence of the sampling offense, not the positioning one. If it demonstrated what happens when you remove both offenses, that would spoil the effect. Nowhere does it say that the second graph is an ideal one.

      • D3bgrRL

        I'm no fan of Fox, but I agree that poor representations of data abound across news media. Aside from deliberate misrepresentations, there are too many people making charts without really understanding what the data is saying. Result? Misleading and inaccurate presentation of statistics. The facts are buried in poor data visualization. And the rest of us poor suckers are left to suss out what the truth is by weighing which news outlet MAY be most trustworthy.

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  • Wm.

    Not quit Jim.

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  • http://twitter.com/datamarket DataMarket

    More on the Unemployment chart (and perhaps a little revealing of Fox's overall methods): http://blog.datamarket.com/2011/12/20/the-anatomy-of-a-fox-news-chart/

  • Jack Skwat

    Man, you a-holes sure have plenty of time to dissect, whine and complain about the article, the author and the content. Get a job. Oh, forgot - the Assholery is not hiring this week.

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  • Paul Bowe

    I prefer to call truncating the y-axis, suppressing zero. Most people with a storey to tell do it. It is a journalist thing and they are word focused. If the graph is correctly presented it needs no comment.

    • Kasper D Hansen

      This opinion is commonly held. I strongly disagree. We use graphs to help us interpret the data, it is not just about whether or not we can read of numbers appropriately from (x,y) coordinates.

  • Hlavin Kitheri

    Not sure why they even bother. Are there situations where simply lying doesn't work? I saw a segment where they talked about the "contracting" economy, basically two whole minutes based on the premise that GDP has gone down since 2009 (it has gone up).

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  • http://profiles.google.com/mchris08 Chris Marquesas

    I wonder why so many commentators are trying to defend Fox News. I'd think they would by trying to find excuses for it. Actually Fox News is inexcusable.

    • bayu

      In the case of "Changing the magnitude of units at different x-values,"
      it looks to me like only the last data point has not been plotted
      correctly. Still open to discussion whether that was on purpose or not. rumah minimalis

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  • Andrew Thatcher

    I like how you compared this to graphics of the rest of the far left media. Not.

    Its ok i guess- weak minded folks like you *should* compare apple to (same) apple lest you sprain a ligament up there.

  • Paullox

    It should also be remembered that these charts are only on screen for a few seconds. Most viewers wouldn't have adequate time to examine them to catch the flaws.
    Damn that DVR for messing up their plans.

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  • Steve

    Statistics for Dummies?

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  • Burnsomaha

    You can find this type of stuff everywhere in the media. Have you ever looked at stock market trends? Depending on the stock price, the y-axis can be truncated making the price seem like it's moving a great deal up or down. As far as the unemployment chart, it's a case of a mislabeled data point at the end, it didn't dip below 9% in 2011.

  • D3bgrRL

    Terrifying to see how easily statistical information can be presented to obscure or mislead viewers about the meaning of the information. At what point does this become immoral/unethical, rather than just "our point of view"? More "new math" from Fox Newscorps. If you don't like what the math tells you, screw around with the data viz...

  • Mike

    To all those looking for larger sample sizes, go watch Fox tonight. These are examples of a common behavior from an organization that strategically victimizes its viewers to push its agenda. It's shameful.

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  • Steven Salzberg

    These are awful graphs, all very amusing - but here is an even more egregiously terrible graph, pointed out by my brother (a statistician) on his blog:

    http://www.what-are-the-chances.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-worst-graph.html

    It gets everything wrong - the title is misleading, the left and right axis labels use different scales, the horizontal axis is off, and the units of the two main quantities being displayed - oil vs gas production - aren't even comparable.

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  • RDog

    Oh please... you are reaching... So you never watch the liberal driven media "propaganda machine" pMSNBC? David Axlerod writes the talking points for all the hosts..

  • ricks

    Eye candy charts with Junk misleading data. poor fox viewers are basically zombies!!!

  • jasa seo

    I wonder why so many commentators are trying to defend Fox News. I'd think they would be trying to find excuses for it.

  • Alsan

    Too bad the final statement "Fox News isn't the only organization..." is made as an afterthought. The misuse of statistics by all new orgs and politicians is disgusting. desain rumah terbaru

  • HeyKCG

    My own research indicates that 94.56% of statistics are totally fabricated.

  • medartist01

    IF YOU CAN'T WIN ON THE FACTS...
    Just make up your own!

    FOX has been doing this for decades. In fact, this fact was glaringly obvious during the 2012 Presidential, when the only polling that FOX went with, was the ONLY ONE that scored Romney in the positives ––– Rasmussen. That poll became the defacto-FOXNEWS poll, and they ignored every other poll. Again, despite every other polling entity scoring the opposite results. Ha. This didn't raise any flags at FOX? Why? Simple. Because FOX is not interested in REPORTING news, but actually in PROMOTING PROPAGANDA and trying to influence its target audience.

  • Jasa Toko Online

    The second graph you mention with the y-axis starting at 6? If the graph
    did have a y-axis starting at zero, the author's point would have been
    even more emphasized, meaning the subtlety of the change from the final
    two points on Fox's graph would have been even more apparent.

    http://manggale.com/jasa-pembuatan-website-murah-pekanbaru-riau/

  • Hidayat Mundana

    I didn't intend my comments as an attack on Fox News, specifically.
    Anyone who plays tricks with stats to software sms gateway murah elicit fear and paranoia should be
    ashamed, and it's not just Fox that's guilty. I can appreciate the
    authors efforts to provide a jasa pembuatan website sekolah context to view any graphical
    representation with a healthy dose of cynicism,
    jasa pembuatan website pekanbaruregardless of the
    source.

  • http://daftaragenherbalterbaik.wordpress.com/ Sara Onser

    Daftar Agen Herbal

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  • http://manggale.com Hidayat Mundana

    I agree -- that is not mislabeled, that is outright fraud. All of the
    other datapoints except the last one that contradicts their narrative
    look consistently in line with the y-axis. jasa website sekolah

  • Nizar Firdaus

    I think the news are discussed in a very nice fox news, tp his own response would depend how, in the graph made ​​by fox news was very clear and bright, hopefully we can give great feedback

    jual rumah