Getting Numbers Right: An Essential Part of Good Reporting
Having escaped from ten years of doing the Economic Reporting Review (ERR), I’m beginning “Beat the Press,” with the single topic that took up the most cyberspace in ERR -- putting numbers in context. The point is that it is the reporter’s responsibility to use numbers in ways that make their articles as informative as possible to the reader. This means putting them in a context that will make them meaningful to the typical reader.
For example, reporting that a new federal transportation bill will cost $285 billion over the next six years (approximately the actual expenditure) provides virtually no information to the typical reader. Almost no one has any idea of how large or small this figure is in terms of the federal budget, or the implied tax burden from this level of spending. On the other hand, if the reporter had taken two seconds to use a calculator, she could have told readers that the expenditure is equal to approximately 1.7 percent of projected federal spending over this period. This information would immediately give readers a sense of the importance of this expenditure. (Arguably, the better measure would be as a share of discretionary federal spending – it’s approximately 4.6 percent of projected discretionary spending. This information can be quickly obtained through the CEPR Budget Calculator.)
As it is, we know that the public is hugely misinformed about the federal budget. Most people hugely overestimate the share of spending that goes to areas like TANF (the main cash welfare program) and foreign aid. Millions of people believe that the budget can be balanced by cutting these programs or eliminating some pork barrel projects that got special attention. The reality is that most of the obvious pork is pretty trivial in the context of the whole budget, and even taken together, a mass slaughter of pork barrel projects would not go very far towards eliminating the deficit. (I’m no fan of pork. I just don’t want people to be misled about it importance in the budget.)We can deplore the general public’s ignorance about the budget, but is it really any surprise when all they ever see are numbers that would be meaningless to anyone who is not a budget wonk?
This is one that really should be mom and apple pie to reporters. After all, why present numbers that mean nothing to readers, when it is so easy to present numbers that actually provide information? I have never found a reporter who argued this point with me, and I have persuaded several to explicitly endorse it. For example, Dan Okrent, the New York Times first public editor, wrote a very nice piece (Numbed by Numbers, When They Just Don't Add Up, 1-23-05) which pointed out how meaningless it is to the typical reader to see a big number with lots of zeros. I printed a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review later in the year that made the same point (The Numbers Game, April 2005) and their copy editor volunteered to me that this seemed like a total no-brainer.So, the question I will start this new blog with is, if everyone agrees that it makes much more sense to put numbers in context (especially budget numbers), and it is so easy to do, why don’t reporters do it?
I’ll throw in a few more points on this one later in the week, including an explanation of why it so important.