How the New York Times’ Budget Coverage Keeps the Public in the Dark

Numbers without any context only serve to mislead the reader.

Dean Baker

News publications like the New York Times fail to offer readers a full understanding of the budget. (Patrick / Flickr)

This piece was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished at the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research.

The media could do a much better job of informing the public about spending if they made a point of putting these figures in context.

Paul Krug­man crit­i­cized the Trump admin­is­tra­tion for its bud­get, which would cut or elim­i­nate many pro­grams that ben­e­fit low- and mod­er­ate-income peo­ple. In his piece, Krug­man points out that the pub­lic is incred­i­bly igno­rant on the bud­get, with most peo­ple hav­ing vir­tu­al­ly no idea of where most spend­ing goes.

In par­tic­u­lar, he ref­er­enced an analy­sis that found peo­ple on aver­age believed we spend more than 30 per­cent of the bud­get on for­eign aid. The actu­al fig­ure is less than one percent.

This is the sort of item that inevitably leads peo­ple to deplore the igno­rance of the mass­es. While igno­rance is deplorable, instead of blam­ing the mass­es, we might more appro­pri­ate­ly look at the elites.

The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of peo­ple are nev­er going to look at a bud­get doc­u­ment. Inso­far as they get any infor­ma­tion on the bud­get, it is from reporters who tell them how much we spend in var­i­ous areas of the bud­get. (They may get this infor­ma­tion indi­rect­ly from their friends who read the news­pa­per or lis­ten to news.)

When they hear about spend­ing, they will invari­ably hear things like we spend $40 bil­lion a year on for­eign aid or $17.3 bil­lion on Tem­po­rary Assis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies (TANF). Most peo­ple will think these fig­ures are large sums, since they dwarf the sums that peo­ple see in their dai­ly lives. In fact, the for­mer is less than one per­cent of the $4.1 tril­lion that we will spend in 2017, while the lat­ter is just over 0.4 per­cent of total spending.

The media could do a much bet­ter job of inform­ing the pub­lic about spend­ing (i.e. by doing their job) if they made a point of putting these fig­ures in con­text. As it is, giv­ing peo­ple these real­ly huge num­bers with­out con­text is essen­tial­ly telling them noth­ing. As an alter­na­tive, they could make a point of always refer­ring to these num­bers as a share of the bud­get and/​or express­ing them on a per per­son basis (e.g. the spend­ing on TANF comes to a bit more than $50 per per­son per year from every per­son in the country).

I have harangued reporters on this point for decades. No reporter has ever tried to argue that any sig­nif­i­cant share of their audi­ence had any idea of what these large bud­get num­bers mean. Yet, the prac­tice persists.

I thought I had scored a big vic­to­ry in this effort a few years back when Mar­garet Sul­li­van, who was then pub­lic edi­tor of the New York Times, wrote a strong piece com­plete­ly agree­ing with the need to express bud­get num­bers in con­text. She got David Leon­hardt, the NYT’s Wash­ing­ton edi­tor at the time, to agree as well.

This seemed to indi­cate that the paper would change its pol­i­cy on bud­get report­ing. Giv­en the enor­mous impor­tance of the NYT, as the nation’s pre­em­i­nent news­pa­per, such a change would have a sub­stan­tial impact on report­ing else­where. This was a huge deal, which I cel­e­brat­ed at the time.

But no, the NYT did not change its prac­tice. It con­tin­ued to report real­ly big num­bers, with­out any con­text, which every­one knows are mean­ing­less to the vast major­i­ty of even its well-edu­cat­ed readership.

Okay, so the mass­es are igno­rant about the bud­get. I and oth­er econ­o­mist nerd types would like the pub­lic to have more knowl­edge about our area of exper­tise. But the child care work­er who spent her day deal­ing with out-of-con­trol three-year-olds, or the bus dri­ver who was tied up in traf­fic for eight hours, is not going to come home and start look­ing at bud­get doc­u­ments from the Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Office.

At most, these peo­ple will spend a few min­utes read­ing the arti­cle about the bud­get in their local paper or lis­ten­ing to a short sto­ry on the evening news. If these sources just give them real­ly big num­bers, with­out any con­text, how is the pub­lic sup­posed to know about the budget?

Look, I under­stand that we have racists who want to believe that all their tax dol­lars are going to good for noth­ing dark-skinned peo­ple and that many of them would believe this regard­less of what facts they are pre­sent­ed with. How­ev­er, we have plen­ty of non-racists who also believe some­thing like this because they hear that we spend real­ly big num­bers on TANF, food stamps, and oth­er pro­grams that help low-income people.

We can point fin­gers at the racists and denounce their racism and stu­pid­i­ty if that makes us feel good. But a more pro­duc­tive path would be to change what we should be able to change. We should be able to get reporters to do their jobs and report bud­get num­bers in a way that mean some­thing to their audi­ence. What’s the prob­lem here?

Dean Bak­er is co-direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research and co-author of Social Secu­ri­ty: The Pho­ny Cri­sis (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2000).
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