Major Newspapers Warp Budget Debate By Ignoring Context


America’s most prominent newspapers fail to provide the proper context for numbers relating to federal budgets in two-thirds of their coverage. That’s the finding of a Media Matters examination of six months of budget coverage from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post.

The Journal performed best of the three papers, but still failed to provide context in the majority of cases:

The problem with relying on raw numbers for discussions of debt, program funding levels, and spending proposals is that they tend to make every federal program sound like an extravagant expense. But given the size of the government and the country, figures with lots of zeroes are common. Without a basis for comparison – to what the government spent on the same thing previously, perhaps, or to what other advanced economies allocate to similar purposes – the figures may alarm more than they inform.

A recently-passed House Republican appropriations bill would spend $50 million on removing lead paint from homes. That may sound like a substantial amount of money, but it is a 58 percent cut to the lead abatement program’s budget from the previous year, endangering an important public health initiative that not only improves lives but saves the country huge amounts of money.

Polling has frequently shown voters misunderstand how the federal government spends their money, and tend to believe programs they dislike take up far larger portions of the budget than they do. A 2010 survey found Americans think the government should cut the foreign aid budget down from a quarter of spending to just 10 percent – even though those programs actually take up just one percent of the budget. In 2011, a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found Americans think that public broadcasting accounts for five percent of the budget. It is actually one tenth of one percent. The same poll found perceptions of the cost of public employee pensions and food aid to the poor are inflated by a factor of three. Another 2011 survey found “a majority of voters incorrectly believes the federal government spends more on defense/foreign aid than it does on Medicare and Social Security.”