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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press More Frat Boy Budget Reporting at the Washington Post

More Frat Boy Budget Reporting at the Washington Post

Tuesday, 04 February 2014 07:51

The Washington Post gave us some good frat boy budget reporting in a front page story on the farm bill this morning. Frat boy budget reporting is when you write a piece that provides no information to the vast majority of readers but lets you go down to the budget reporters' frat house and give each other the budget reporters' secret handshake. In this case, the piece told us that the farm bill will cost $956.4 billion over the next decade, it will reduce spending on SNAP by $8 billion and save $16 billion in total.

Yes, this is really helpful. At least 0.1 percent of Washington Post readers have any clue what these numbers mean for the budget over the next decade. It is possible and easy to express these numbers in ways that would be meaningful.

CEPR's extraordinary Responsible Budget Reporting Calculator would allow any budget reporters to determine in seconds that the total bill is 2.05 percent of projected spending, which immediately would give the vast majority of Post readers a clear idea of the farm bill's importance to the budget. They could also quickly recognize that the cuts to the SNAP bill are 0.017 percent of projected spending and the total savings on the bill are 0.034 percent of projected spending.

It's really not hard to do budget reporting in a way that provides information to its audience. However the Post simply chooses not to.

Comments (4)Add Comment
written by tom, February 04, 2014 7:47
I'm not about to read the farm bill, but I thought it was only for 5 years. IF that's the case, what's with the decade?
Next thing you know WAPO will include distance analogies in all budget reporting
written by EMichael, February 04, 2014 9:23

End to end, a trillion dollar bills would run from here to the moon and back 200 times.
Truth is the first casualty of human conflicts...
written by Sustainable Gains, February 04, 2014 4:45
I agree with Dean, any media source wishing to be seen as objective, fair, balanced etc. should report all budget and related government financial numbers as a fraction of a meaningful total. Note that research shows that most folks are borderline innumerate and don't know percentages any better than they know orders of magnitude, so actual fractions work better. (e.g. instead of "0.017% of projected spending", say "less than 2 parts in 10,000 of projected spending").

Personally I favor referencing projected tax revenue rather than projected spending, since taxes are real to taxpayers. Perhaps the best budget reporting would reference an average-taxpayer or per-capita basis. ("The Farm Bill is how Congress decided to lavish $300 per U.S. citizen on a small minority next year, although within the bill Congress decided not to spend $2.67 per U.S. citizen helping the poor via SNAP.")

I also think that since large swathes of the population don't have a gut feeling for the difference between $956.4K, $956.4M and $956.4B, all budget numbers should be reported longhand as well. Consider instead the following:

The remainder of my comment...
written by Sustainable Gains, February 04, 2014 4:50
… was lost due to a left angle bracket:

The difference between $956.4M and $956.4B is now obvious, because the order of magnitude is immediately visible in the number of digits.

It's not like there's a shortage of digital paper on which to write, so taking a bit more space to write out the number isn't a publication expense anymore. Furthermore, as the numbers get longer, so does the article, which means it fills more screen space and thus more ads can be sold! Better comprehension AND more ad revenue, win win!

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.