That is a serious question. What are newspapers, radio and television stations, and Internet sites trying to accomplish when they report on the budget?

a giant dollar sign over the earth

Budget reporting needs more context to be meaningful.

Presumably they are trying to convey information to their audience. This raises the question of why they so frequently just report budget numbers in billions or trillions of dollars; numbers that will be almost completely meaningless to the overwhelming majority of their audience.

This point is simple and straightforward. When a newspaper tells its readers that the government will spend $76 billion this year on food stamps, as the NYT did recently, the number is virtually meaningless to almost everyone who sees it. Most people, even the well-educated readers of the NYT, are not budget wonks. They know $76 billion is a big number, way more than they will ever see in their lifetime, but spending on food stamps would also be a really big number to most of us if were $7.6 billion or $760 billion. When the NYT tells us that we are spending $76 billion on food stamps it is not informing readers as to whether this level of spending is a big item in their tax bill or a major contributor to the budget deficit.

It turns out that it is not just NYT readers who get confused by large numbers. Apparently NYT reporters and/or editors have the same problem. The NYT article on food stamps last month described food stamps as a $760 billion program. The NYT later printed a correction, but this was a pretty egregious error to slip by the editors. The paper went one step further this month when it reported Italy’s debt as $2.6 billion. The correct number is $2.6 trillion, three orders of magnitude larger.

Mistakes like these find their way into print because even NYT editors are not hugely familiar with the budget. It is highly unlikely that they would have printed that food stamp spending is 22 percent of the budget, as opposed to the actual 2.2 percent number for 2013. Editors would know that the food stamp program does not take up more than one fifth of the budget. Similarly, they never would have written that Italy’s debt is 0.1 percent of GDP, as opposed to the actual number of approximately 130 percent.

Reporting these huge budget numbers without any context is simply bad reporting. It’s not a question of time or space. It takes less than one second for a reporter to put these numbers in percentages. In terms of space, if an article is really that space constrained that it cannot include an extra clause in a sentence, then it would make more sense to exclude the dollars (which are meaningless to almost everyone) and just include the percentage figure.

Media Matters did a nice report looking at budget coverage in the NYT, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal over the first half of 2013. It found that all three just reported the raw numbers in more than half of their budget stories. Still there were differences. In the Washington Post, 73 percent of the budget articles only included the raw numbers. By comparison, in the Wall Street Journal only 56 percent of the articles included the numbers devoid of any context. Twenty nine percent of the WSJ articles expressed the numbers as shares of the total budget, almost twice the 15 percent share of budget articles at the WAPO. The NYT came in the middle in both categories.

While the WSJ can take a bow for being the best of the big three, there is still no excuse for reporting numbers without any context in 56 percent of its budget stories. This is not just a dillettantish concern for good reporting. Polls consistently show that the public is enormously confused about the budget. They have no idea where their tax dollars are going. A poll from 2011 found that the public on average believes that 27 percent of the budget goes to foreign aid. The actual number is less than 1.0 percent. A CNN poll from the same year found that the median respondent thought that food stamps accounted for 10 percent of the budget, while subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting accounted for 5 percent of the budget. (The actual number is less than 0.01 percent.)

It is impossible to have serious policy debates when the public is so poorly informed about where their tax dollars are going. What does it mean when most people think that foreign aid should be cut because they think that we should only spend 5 percent of the budget on foreign aid (close to 10 times current spending levels)?

Obviously prejudices enter into these misperceptions. There are people who want to believe that all their tax dollars go to foreign aid or food stamps and who will not allow their opinions to be influenced by the data. However, there is a very large segment of the public that does not fall into this category who are similarly misinformed. It is unlikely that if they heard the media continually repeat that foreign aid was 0.7 percent of the budget (instead of $23 billion), that they would still believe that it accounted for more than one quarter of the budget. This would allow us to have a budget debate that reflected people’s actual priorities rather than their misperceptions.

So what is the argument on the other side? No reporter really believes that they are providing information to most of their audience when they tell them we will spend $76 billion on food stamps this year. Why do it? Yes, that is the way that it has always been done, but they used to write stories with typewriters, too.

Change is possible. There is no excuse for not presenting news in the way that makes it most understandable to the audience. It’s time for the media to take their responsibilities to the public seriously.

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.

Image by DonkeyHotey released under a  Creative Commons license.