Print Media's Reliance On Raw Number Scare Tactics

Major print publications relied heavily on the use of raw numbers when reporting economic issues, but these discussions of spending, deficit and revenue levels that rely solely on abstract and sensational numerical figures obscure otherwise important information.

A Media Matters analysis found since the beginning of 2013 three major publications -- The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post -- provided a majority of their coverage of the national budget (including figures on debt, deficits, spending, and revenue) without adequate context.


Reports highlighting gross spending, deficit, and revenue levels consistently failed to include relevant data such as the size of items relative to total federal spending or to GDP. Reports also consistently failed to put data into context with year-to-year comparisons.

For example, the newspapers' coverage of the national debt regularly failed to include the size of the debt relative to GDP, when doing so would have revealed that the United States does not carry extraordinary debt levels when compared to other developed nations. Discussions of the annual budget deficit regularly overlooked the fact that deficits have declined by more than half since peaking in FY 2009.

Many economists have noted that the media's reliance on enormous and abstract figures in economic reporting is little more than a scare tactic intended to drum up fears about the deficit. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research noted that the reliance on raw numbers also increases the likelihood that outlets will misreport information.

Opting to report national budget news in this way contributes to a general public misconception of debt, deficits, and the size and expense of spending programs. A Bloomberg News poll from February 2013 found that just 4 percent of Americans knew that the budget deficit was in decline. The same poll also revealed 34 percent of Americans believe the government spends between 2 and 20 percent of its budget on foreign aid, while another 31 percent believe foreign aid accounts for more than 20 percent of the budget. In fact, foreign aid and relief accounts for just 1 percent of the federal budget and has been in decline relative to overall spending for more than four decades.

This is not the first instance of media overreliance on inflated figures. Media Matters uncovered similar tactics employed by Fox News as it attempted to undermine Social Security and Medicare with the fear of “unfunded liabilities”.