A colleague sent me a link to Rachel Maddow’s website today where she features a graph that was used by BP senior vice president Kent Wells to show how the company’s efforts to collect the oil that’s spewing into the ocean at a rate of several thousands of barrels per day is improving. He talks about adjustments that they’ve made to the siphon, then says “Here you can see how we’ve continued to ramp up.” But is this really what’s happening?
Although the graph doesn’t outright lie, BP is relying on the viewer’s assumption that a series of bars that increases in height represents an increase in performance. In this case it does not, however, because the bars display the cumulative amount of oil collected per day, not the daily amount. In my graph below, which shows daily oil collection, the story is obviously quite different.
While the amount of collection increased in the beginning, it has decreased or held steady for the last four days and is now well below the average amount of daily collection for this period as a whole. Things are definitely not getting better. How do you spin bad news like this? One way is to create a misleading graph, but cover your ass by doing it in a way that isn’t an outright lie.