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Really Bad Charts

Aug 04, 2020

The Axios interview was a lot to take in for a forty minute interview, but I want to focus on particular on this bit from Alex Shephard in the New Republic (Emphasis mine):

The printouts ultimately damage Trump more than he himself could. They’re a prop for the camera, but they also suggest that the administration is more interested in coddling the president and creating a comforting pseudo-reality than stopping a deadly pandemic. There has already been much discussion of how the presidential daily briefing has shrunk practically to the size of a Post-It note in order to accommodate a president with the attention span of a golden retriever. The printouts show how Trump’s insecurities and shortcomings are dictating what information he receives. Having forgotten what he was supposed to say about the chart, Trump simply hands it to Swan. Swan takes one look at it and realizes instantly that it’s garbage: The list cites deaths as a share of coronavirus cases, not of the population as a whole. All Trump can do is stammer: “You have to go by—you have to go by—here, look. Here is the United States. You have to go by the cases.”

The biggest issue with the charts Trump is using in the interviews is that they’d fail basic high school-level chart construction. Take this one for instance:

How not to make a chart

How not to make a chart

Watch Swan’s expression in the interview when he’s handed the chart:

There’s about five seconds in between when he gets the chart and when he realizes what’s going on in it. Because nothing is labeled. The chart is providing a linear breakdown of COVID-19 deaths in relation to total cases (I think) and it provides four metrics: the European Union, all of Europe, the world, and the United States. I can’t remember much of my high school math and sciences classes, but I remember one thing: always label your axes.1 Neither the X or Y axis is labeled. We can easily know the X axis is date, but what’s the 2% increments on the Y axis showing us?

Honestly, I have no idea

Honestly, I have no idea

Putting aside everything else, these are terrible charts if the goal was to provide a talking point aid. The one thing you want in these situations is the ability to quickly look at something and know what it is. The entire charts segment involves both Trump and Swan trying to figure out what the charts are representing, it’s just painful.2


  1. Also…be consistent in your citations. The chart has citations under the EU, US and World but Europe as a whole has nothing. ↩︎

  2. That’s before the Epstein conspiracies, doubling down on wishing an alleged child sex trafficker well, and stating he can’t say if John Lewis was a great American. ↩︎