Covering budgets: Tips for putting faces to the numbers

Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

Writing about budgets does not make for ‘sexy’ stories — but arguably, nothing is more important to the public.  

Nonstop coverage of President Donald Trump’s budget is proof of that. Journalists scrutinize every line to show the impact on average Americans. Opinion columnists, editorial writers and talking heads spin out dizzying points of view.

This phenomenon plays out in countries throughout the world and the media is at the heart of the process.

A close look at national budgets shows whether government policies favor the rich or the poor. The reporting sheds light on who wins, loses and falls through the cracks of the system. At its best, media scrutiny helps keep governments honest and stimulates public debate.

IJNet turned to the International Budget Partnership (IBP) at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. for tips and guidelines on fostering budget transparency.

“The public needs access to budget information and opportunities to participate throughout the budget process,” said IBP Executive Director Warren Krafchik. “A growing body of evidence indicates such budgetary checks and balances yield better outcomes for people, especially those who are poor and vulnerable.”

IBP advises media should:

  • Translate complex numbers into understandable language and graphics

  • Provide political and economic context

  • Give critical voices an opportunity to be heard

  • Give clarity to the use of public funds so the public can see if funds are being allocated to meet public needs and priorities

In his article, “Budget Writing Tips for Reporters,” Michael Arkus suggests how to put a human face on numbing numbers:

  • Be a detective. “You are a detective, a sleuth who is going to extract out of mind-numbing columns of numbers facts that affect individuals on the ground. This involves constant checking with sources of all shades of opinion – civil society groups, anti-poverty and other humanitarian organizations, chambers of commerce, business organizations and government officials themselves.”

  • Think small. “Budget figures are enormous, often too large for readers, listeners or viewers to take in. A vast jumble or astronomical figures will immediately bring down an iron curtain in their brains.

    “So, while your lead paragraph might have an overall number – the big picture – you’ll get much more traction if it also has the small telling detail. And if this detail includes the individual example of one or more of the budget’s impacts with which your audience can identify, you’ll have a better chance of hooking them.”

  • Social impact. “A good red-flag element is the budget’s effect on all income sectors from the poorest to the wealthiest . . . you are going to have much more impact when readers can identify by feeling the effect in their own pocket, and compare it with other pockets. Who is better off because of the budget? Who is worse off?’

In response to IJNet’s question on the media’s role in strengthening budget accountability, IBP provided the following:

  1. Informing the public. A primary responsibility of the media is to provide the public with government budget information in widely accessible formats and language. It does this by translating technical budget information into “user-friendly” presentations.

  2. Encouraging dialogue. The media can draw upon experts outside of government, including in academia and civil society, to assess budget proposals for: accuracy, alignment with needs and priorities, soundness. By publicizing alternative views on budgets and policies proposals, media can raise awareness, spur debate, and encourage the public to not only pay attention to budget processes and policies, but also the engage in the dialogue over choices.

  3. Holding the government to account. By keeping a critical eye on public finance management, the media plays an invaluable oversight role and provides an important source of external pressure on governments to use public resources effectively and efficiently to meet the public’s needs.

IBP’s materials often are aimed at NGOs, but journalists will find useful tips to help transform complex budget issues into readable form. Here are three worth checking:

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Tax Credits