How to Cover Big Debt, Deficit Numbers in a Way that Helps Readers

By Chris Adams

While much of Washington journalism is focused on pure politics, there’s plenty to be done actually writing about how government operates – and pays for itself.

In an era of never-ending budget deficits and entrenched Washington gridlock, two journalists who have covered the budget wars of the past decade gave National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows a lesson on how to frame big-picture taxing-and-spending issues in ways that resonate with readers.

“We need to be doing a better job explaining to people back home why all this matters,” said Sudeep Reddy, an economics editor at The Wall Street Journal and himself a former Paul Miller fellow.

Reddy told reporters to focus discussions of the budget on three areas: individuals (and the special interests that represent them); businesses that are shaped by policy actions or economic cycles; and financial markets, both in the U.S. and abroad. He also told them to beware of overly-rosy budget scenarios, including those on the projected size of the gross domestic product.

Ben Weyl, a reporter and editor of Politico Pro’s Budget & Appropriations Brief, gave practical guidance on where to go for information when the budget actually comes out and works its way through Congress. (Or, as is often the case, doesn’t work its way through Congress.)

He led reporters through the annual budget calendar, detailing when the White House proposes a budget (usually February) and then how and when Congress responds through its budget-and-appropriations process (often not until the federal fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 each year). Most of the time, presidential budgets are considered DOA – “dead on arrival” – he said, since no Congress in recent years has been willing to accommodate a budget coming from the opposition party.

Weyl also took reporters on a tour of the documents the White House Office of Management and Budget puts out each year. Those documents contain details down to the department, agency and office level.

Among important resources for journalists, including government entities and liberal, conservative and neutral think tanks:

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