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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Putting Numbers in Context: Give Dana Milbank a Pulitzer Prize

Putting Numbers in Context: Give Dana Milbank a Pulitzer Prize

Tuesday, 08 July 2014 12:12

Regular readers of Beat the Press know that I go into the stratosphere when I see a news story or column that uses numbers in the millions, billions, or trillions and doesn't provide any context, like relating it to the total budget if it's a tax or spending item. The reason for my ire is simple: everyone knows that almost no one is going to be able to assign any significance to these Really Big Numbers. Therefore such pieces are providing no information to readers.

On the other hand it is very simple to provide context to readers. Dana Milbank showed how today when he wrote about the $4.2 million dollars that President Obama announced he would spend on a new Excellent Educators for All Initiative, which is supposed to address inequities in the quality of teachers across schools. Milbank pointed out that the commitment amounted to about 0.0001 percent of federal spending. In other words, this is gesture done for show.

By writing that President Obama plans to spend 0.0001 percent of the budget on his Excellent Educators for All Initiative, Milbank is telling readers that this is not a serious plan for addressing educational disparities, it is a public relations gesture. People who just saw the $4.2 million number may be under the mistaken impression that this program could actually make a difference in the quality of education for poor children.

Of course if reporters routinely expressed numbers in context there would be less incentive for politicians to push forward with silly public relations gestures, because everyone would know they are silly gestures. That would be a direct positive effect of this sort of effort at providing readers with real information instead of treating budget reporting as a fraternity ritual in which reporters write down numbers which they know to be meaningless to almost everyone who sees them.

Comments (3)Add Comment
context & context
written by Jonathan Lundell, July 08, 2014 12:49
I'm not really convinced that "0.0001 percent of the budget" is all that useful as context either, though it does seem minor. Might be more useful to point out that it's ~9¢ per K-12 student nationally, or ~$42/public school, or a little more than a dollar per public school teacher (2011 numbers).
Dan Still Misses the Ball
written by Larry Signor, July 08, 2014 3:08
This particular quote left me wondering about really small numbers...
More than 100 Latinos — a constituency that has been a reliable part of Obama’s political base...

100 people...why does Millbank think 100 protesters is news worthy? I still don't believe he gets the numbers game.
written by JDM, July 08, 2014 7:08
It's pretty clear that there's a double standard being talked about. Context appears when it comes time to point out a Democrat's grandstanding, but mysteriously disappears when it comes time for Republican and/or big business grandstanding r(for instance re deficits ).

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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.