Want To Understand The Budget? Don’t Read The Newspaper.

Bill Scher

Last week, Media Matters released a report showing that traditional media outlets typically do not put raw budget numbers in any sort of understandable context. In other words, the media will usually breathlessly sensationalize a budget deficit of 750 BILLON DOLLARS instead of a deficit that is less than 5% of a $16 trillion dollar economy, a level of deficit America shouldered during the presidencies of Carter, Reagan and the first Bush.

We’re seeing the pattern return in the discussion of public pensions in the wake of the Detroit bankruptcy filing. Dean Baker caught the Washington Post flatly misstating the total estimated size of state and local unfunded pension liabilities at $3.8 trillion, when it is really $1 trillion.

While the accurate number also sounds big by itself, Baker notes, “the unfunded liabilities are 0.22 percent of projected GDP over the next 30 years” which is the standard timeframe for pension planners.

In any discussion about numbers in America, we need to be constantly reminded that we are a big country and a wealthy country. Any number: thousand, million, billion, trillion, can sound big by itself or with scary words around it.

You would expect politicians and ideologues to skip the context in hopes of painting pictures of Armageddon and driving you into a frenzied outrage.

But we look to the media to help us sift through the histrionics and put things in context. If they’re going to give up, then it will be impossible to have an informed public direct their own democracy.

There’s a simple solution: an agreement by major media outlets to use basic standards that put budget numbers in context. (A MoveOn.org petition along these lines, focusing on The New York Times, is here.)

It is not too much to ask for a single set standards so all citizens can engage their democracy based on the same set of facts. It’s not extra work for the media to regularly add one line with budgetary context. And it’s not like there’s all that much of a competitive advantage to be had over your media rivals by writing the most sensationalistic budget story.

But institutions won’t change unless moved by who they are supposed to serve. Media customers need to speak up and let reporters and editors know: they want to understand, not be spun.

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