The New York Times indicated that it will take steps to more accurately present numbers-based stories, a change that will ensure readers are better informed on economic issues.
In an October 18 post, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan addressed growing concerns that the outlet relies too heavily on reporting numbers-based stories in terms of raw figures. According to Sullivan:
Many readers have written to me recently, given the federal budget crisis, to make a simple request: Please advocate for news stories that put large numbers in context. If The Times does not do that, they say, it is part of the problem, and if it does do so, other news organizations are very likely to follow suit.
Sullivan explained that she met with Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt to discuss ways in which the Times can direct its reporters to provide relevant context when writing about large numbers, such as the federal budget or national debt.
The Times' decision to begin providing context for large numbers is a welcome change. According to a Media Matters' analysis of major print outlets over the first half of 2013, the paper largely failed to provide relevant context -- such as comparable numbers or addressing figures in percentage terms -- when reporting economic data. The paper failed to provide context in 67 percent of articles that mentioned economic data.*
Many economists have noted concerns over reporting very large economic numbers without relevant context, claiming that it often amounts to little more than scare tactics used to stoke fears about the size of the national debt and deficits. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research has led the charge against this type of unintentionally misleading reporting, noting that the overreliance on very large raw numbers also increases the likelihood that they will be misreported. Leonhardt acknowledges that pressure to change their economic reporting came from “the left,” but explains that it's not a partisan issue:
And while he noted that the recent pressure for change is “coming from the left,” specifically the economist-writer Dean Baker and MoveOn.org - which now has more than 18,000 signatures on a petition -- this is not a partisan issue.
“Math has neither a conservative nor a liberal bias,” Mr. Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt explained that it is difficult for readers to conceptualize large numbers such as the the dollar amount of the national debt. Additionally, Leonhardt admitted that even he confused the distinction between millions and billions of dollars when reporting a large figure on the front page of the paper.
The Times' move away from relying on raw numbers could go a long way in educating the public about economic issues. Polls consistently show that voters are generally unaware of the size and scope of federal programs, perhaps in part because news outlets rarely put the numbers in context.
According to Sullivan and Leonhardt, directives may take the form of new stylebook guidelines or staff-wide emails, and will be “determined within a couple of months.”
*updated for clarity