The New York Times Budget Reporting Looks Like RT on Ukraine

RT, the Russian government owned English language television network, has been the butt of much humor in recent days. It has mindlessly repeated Russian propaganda surrounding the events in Ukraine. The ridicule is well-deserved. News organizations are supposed to inform readers about the world, not make stuff up. Unfortunately, much of the U.S. media deserve comparable ridicule when it comes to budget reporting.

While news outlets don’t just invent numbers on the budget, it would not be much of a change for the worse if they did. The news stories that we saw following the release of president Obama’s budget followed the same practice we have seen in budget stories for decades. They threw very large numbers at readers that no one understands.

For example, a New York Times piece on the Obama budget told readers that Obama would increase spending by $302 billion over the next four years on infrastructure. It tells us that he would spend $76 billion over ten years on funding pre-K education. He would raise $1 trillion in revenue over ten years and he wants to spend an additional $55 billion on the discretionary portion of the budget in an unspecified number of years. Are you well-informed now?

This is joke reporting and everyone knows it. Suppose we added or subtracted a zero from these numbers. If NYT told us that Obama had proposed spending $3,020 billion or $30.2 billion on infrastructure would it have made much difference to how most readers understood this number? In all three cases this is a really large number that is virtually meaningless to the overwhelming majority of NYT readers. That’s true even though the NYT has a highly-educated and well-informed readership.

No one disputes this fact. Move-on and Media Matters pressed this issue with the NYT in a petition last fall. The NYT’s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan strongly agreed that the budget numbers as presented were largely meaningless to the vast majority of its readers. She raised the point with David Leonhardt, then the national news editor. He also completely agreed, adding that in such cases people just see “really big number.”

According to Leonhardt, the NYT was taking steps to ensure that budget numbers and other big numbers would be expressed in a context that made them understandable to readers. Now it’s more than four months later and the budget reporting still gives readers the same big numbers without any context.

There is no excuse for continuing a pattern of budget reporting that clearly flunks the basic task of informing readers. The most obvious way in which to make budget numbers understandable is to express them as a share of the total budget. All the reporters at the major news outlets know how to do simple division with a calculator. CEPR has even constructed an online budget calculator that allows reporters on deadline to do this calculation in seconds. Why would news outlets not take a trivial step that would make their material much more informative to their audience?

And it does matter. Polls consistently show that the public is hugely misinformed about where their budget dollars go. In a CNN poll from 2011 the median estimate of foreign aid spending put it at 10 percent of the budget. Foreign aid is actually well under 1.0 percent of the budget. The midpoint estimate put spending for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) at 5.0 percent of the budget. Spending on CPB actually comes to 0.012 percent of the budget. Polls also routinely show people grossly over-estimate the amount of money spent of programs like food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program that is usually thought of as welfare.

It is impossible to have a serious public debate about programs when most of the public over-estimates the cost by a factor of twenty, thirty, or even more than a hundred. Obviously some people who dislike these programs will want to believe they get a huge amount of government money regardless of what they read in the newspapers or hear on the news. However a large portion of the population is genuinely ignorant about the size of these programs and they will quite reasonably think differently about TANF if they believe it is 20 percent of the budget as opposed to 0.4 percent.

So are the New York Times, National Public Radio, the Washington Post and the rest just more sophisticated versions of RT, deliberately obfuscating budget numbers so as not to disturb popular prejudices rather than providing real information? That would be a very discouraging state of affairs, but what other explanations exist?

Everyone recognizes that the current practices in budget reporting provide no information. And the remedy is simple and costless. What the hell is going on here?