To: Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor, The New York Times

New York Times: Inform Your Readers, Don't Just Use Big Scary Numbers

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The New York Times should inform its readers by always reporting budget numbers with percentages or comparisons--"food stamps will cost 1.8% of total spending" or "food stamps will cost 11% of what we spend on the military." Reporting big numbers with no context only confuses readers.

Why is this important?

The New York Times regularly reports budget numbers with zero context. They write that a program "costs $700 billion over 10 years" or "saves $150 million" without indicating what percentage of the total that is or giving a meaningful comparison. Since most people don't have any idea that the federal government will spend $50 trillion over the next decade, these are just giant numbers--indistinguishable from one another--to most people.

It's gotten so bad that the Times misreported the cost of food stamps by a factor of 10--they wrote $760 billion, but meant $75 billion--and neither the reporter nor the editors noticed; they had to issue a correction. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/18/us/politics/fraud-used-to-frame-farm-bill-debate.html)

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