Numbers in Context: Big Congrats to the New York Times and Margaret Sullivan

October 19, 2013

I spend a lot of time on this blog beating up on the New York Times. There is a reason I pick on them; they are the best. There is no doubt that the NYT is far and away the most important newspaper in the country. There is no close second. They cover more news in more depth than anyone else by a large margin. Their judgments on what is news and how it is reported sets a standard that has an impact, either directly or indirectly, on every news outlet in the country.

For this reason, it is hugely important that the paper has committed itself to reevaluate how it reports budget numbers and to try to put these numbers in contexts that are meaningful to readers. As many polls have shown, the public is hugely misinformed on where their tax dollars are spent. Some of this misinformation undoubtedly reflects prejudices, but much of it is due to the fact that most budget reporting is not providing meaningful information to readers.

Telling readers that the government will spent $195 billion on transportation over the next six years is telling most readers nothing. They have no idea how large $195 billion is to the federal government over the next six years. On the other hand, if the paper reported that this amount is 0.78 percent of projected spending over this period (found in seconds on CEPR’s extraordinary Responsible Budget Calculator) most people would understand the significance of this item to the budget and their tax bill.

Anyhow, we will see exactly how the NYT ends up dealing with the issue, but they deserve a great deal of credit for recognizing the problem and trying to address it. Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, deserves special credit for taking this one on and pressing it with the paper’s editors. Also Bob Naiman, at Just Foreign Policy, played an important role in initiating a petition at Move-On on this issue, which eventually got almost 19,000 signatures. That’s pretty impressive for the ultimate wonk petition.



Media Matters also deserves serious credit for pushing this issue.


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