Fighting Disinformation: Maybe Reporters Can Try Putting Big Budget Numbers in Contexts that Make Them Understandable

November 22, 2020

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, had a good piece on how reporters can try to combat the nonsense that right-wing politicians and media sources are spewing. I would like to add one item to her list, writing big-budget numbers in ways that are meaningful to readers.

While this seems stupidly simple, for some reason reporters refuse to do it.  The point is that when readers see that we are spending $70 billion on food stamps or $15 billion on foreign aid (roughly last year’s numbers), they think that we are spending lots of money in these areas. These sums are hugely larger than what most of us will see in our lifetime. This leads people to believe that a large portion of their tax dollars are going for these purposes. (Yes, I know some people are racist and want to believe this because they hate people of color, but many people who are not racist, or at least not too racist to consider themselves liberal, also believe that a large share of their tax dollars go to these purposes.) 

Anyhow, if people were constantly told the $70 billion for food stamps is roughly 1.7 percent of the budget and the $15 billion for foreign aid is roughly 0.4 percent of the budget, it might be harder for them to believe that most of their hard-earned tax dollars were going to support these programs. That might make it a bit harder to rile up the hate for the liberal establishment, deep-state, etc.

I thought that there was going to be a change in the New York Times policy on this issue a number of years back, when Margaret Sullivan, who was then the paper’s Public Editor wrote a great piece largely making this point. She got the paper’s Washington editor at the time, David Leonhardt, to chime in, strongly agreeing on this point. To me, this was incredible news, since given the NYT’s standing as the country’s premier news outlet, if they adopted a standard of putting these big numbers in context, it is likely that other news outlets would quickly follow.

But, nothing changed at the NYT or anywhere else. I really can’t understand why. This is not a big time commitment. In the case of budget numbers, any budget reporter should have the size of the federal budget at their fingertips. It takes two seconds to do the division. (The numbers can also be expressed as per person or per household expenditures, which are also good ways to provide context.) But we still just get the really big numbers with no context.

Anyhow, if reporters are really interested in countering the nonsense thrown out by the right, writing big numbers in ways that actually provide information to their audience would be a big help. I have many other ways to improve reporting, as regular BTP readers know, but this is a very simple one that should not be controversial.


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