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Media Manipulation: How The Broken Vertical Axis Ruins Your Credibility

The video graphic in a local news story raced by so quickly that I nearly missed the manipulation—the bar in the graphic animated quickly.

It begins simple enough. The vertical axis starts at 6, the 2022 data flagged as estimated, and only two years of data forewarn manipulation.

The words that bridged the animation from the first bar to the second bar described a 17% increase between 2021 and 2022, but the graph implied something much different.

The estimated 17 percent increase looks much more than that in this deceptive graph.

And in less than 15 seconds, the difference in what the words were saying (17% increase) and what the graph was implying (more than doubling) triggered my brain to tell me I was being manipulated. Most people missed it. Admittedly, I had to go online and replay the tape.

Error or Manipulation?

I took the data into Excel. Sure enough, the initial graph was similar to the one in the new story.

Blame it on the software? No way, experts know the difference and have an obligation to get the graphic right!

However, less than 10 minutes of effort produced a realistic picture.

Showing the complete vertical axis is easy in Excel and most graphics software.

The broken vertical axis is one of the most common graphic manipulation tricks in the book. Experts know it. Manipulating experts hide behind an explanation that it makes the graph easier to read when the vertical range is large or the data is skewed. Do not buy it. What the use of the broken vertical axis does is skew the perception of the person who is reading it.

In the case of this news story, the central point was that it was hard to find a tutor for your child, and matters were only getting worse. However, 17% is not much worse, especially when that increase is estimated for the current year. So, while the words in the story are true, the manipulative graphic is used to reinforce the desired central point (things are getting worse) in the minds of the receiver.

Many Applications of the Broken Vertical Axis

The broken vertical axis is used more often than you think. It is usually related to a controversial topic where one side or the other is looking to manipulate the receiver's perception to obtain an advantage. Common places to see its use are environmental issues such as contamination and climate change, consumption data such as energy use, diversity & inclusion, or the need for new regulations related to health & safety.

The broken vertical axis is often used to manipulate perspectives of controversial issues.

Trusted Advisors Get One Shot At Credibility

Avoid the broken vertical axis. The stunt could be used to make a point, but once caught, you are finished in your role as a trusted advisor to a decision maker. And you should be. After all, you would not want one of your subordinates to manipulate you.


Communicating with FINESSE is a community of technical professionals dedicated to effective communication of complexity and uncertainty to decision makers.


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