Wednesday, March 6, 2019

When your own data contradicts your headline

This morning I got my coffee ruined by an alarming headline in The New York Times:

Two friends I talked to on my way to work were also alarmed —because they didn't read the entire thing. If they had, they would have noticed that the body of the story and the data the Times itself shows contradict its own headline:

Where's the “record”? One of the most common tricks used to lie with data is to crop a time series in convenient places. If you read the body of the story you'll notice that the supposed “record” means an “11-year high” of migrants crossing the border. That sounds like a pretty arbitrary cutoff baseline to me. Why not talking about the seasonality of the data and the fact that current levels are way below historical highs? Both are revealed in the chart and the reporter herself discusses real records:

Just to corroborate that this may be another case of terrible editorial judgment by The New York Times when writing headlines, here's the real emergency: it's not related to an imaginary invasion of migrants, but to a big increase in people with children fleeing from violence in their home countries. There's not a record of migrants; there's a record of migrant families —and even that is not clear, as the chart showing that number (see below) only goes back to January 2016:

The online version of the story is a bit better, as it showcases a critical chart not published on the print version (I'd like to see this data going back to the George W. Bush presidency, too):

It's a shame that my new book is in production already. This would've been another example to include —not of how charts lie, but of how charts tell truths that are ignored to write a clickbaity, sloppy, and irresponsible headline. Very often a headline is the only thing people read, so let's be careful.