Can We at Least Have Some Elementary Journalism in Budget-Cut Scare Stories?


The New York Times on Saturday led its front page with a 2,350-word feature on state and local governments' "major life-changing cuts in core services," which it ran under the headline "Governments Go to Extremes as the Downturn Wears On." As has become my custom, I first scanned the piece to see if it bothered to include the word "pension." Yes, this once:

Suffering from steep declines in tourism and construction, and owing billions of dollars to a pension system that has only 68.8 percent of the money it needs to cover its promises to state workers, Hawaii instituted the furloughs even after getting $110 million in stimulus money for schools.

If you wanted to read any recognition in Saturday's Times of the inarguably damaging impact public-employee pension systems are having on state and local government budgets and provision of services, you'd have to consult not the front-page news article about, um, state and local government budgets and provision of services, but a column in the Business section. But why?

All snickering about the NYT's slant aside, it strikes me as an elementary journalistic principle–whether we're talking about your local daily, a magazine of opinion, or certainly The Paper of Record–that if you're going to wrap even a heavily anecdotal feature around what is essentially a number (the total budget for various governmental units), you would find room within 2,350 words to, I dunno, INCLUDE THE GODDAMNED NUMBER.

I mean, sure, we learn that Colorado Springs "shut off a third of its 24,512 streetlights this winter to save $1.2 million on electricity," and cut its police force from 687 to 643, but aside from that down-to-the-last-digit specificity we learn nothing about the city's (or even its police force's) budget, and how it compares to one, two, five, or 10 years ago. We read on three separate occasions that the state of Hawaii closed school down for 17 Fridays, but the only clue we have about either the state's or the education department's budget is the aforementioned $110 million in stimulus money. I really don't mean to sound like a dick when I say that this kind of basic numerical avoidance wouldn't have passed muster at my college newspaper.

Please note that I'm not asking for any journalistic outlet to agree with my POV on government spending here. In fact, it's quite possible that the inclusion of actual budget numbers in an article about the effect of budget cuts would rally readers in opposition to the kind of cold-hearted budget-slashing I prefer. But if you don't give readers even that much information to decide by themselves, how do you expect them to even begin to have an intelligent conversation about, say, which elements of state and local budgets have been swelling in recent years even while the quality of services has not swelled along for the ride?

None of this is new, just continually irritating, and (from a journalistic point of view) embarrassing.

A trifecta of relevant Reason reading: "Failed States," "California's Silent Big Spenders," and "More Than Zero: Why won't people who love to make zero-sum arguments about the economy apply their own lessons to government spending?"