Incomplete news is useless news

Yesterday as I left Jerome Lange’s farm to deliver a load of produce to Lexington, I heard on the radio that the governor was forecasting a roughly $1 billion dollar shortfall in state revenue over the next fiscal year. If you’re anything like me, that leads you to immediately ask a very simple question: how big is the Kentucky state budget?

I heard that report repeated over and over on the radio, from different news organizations, and never heard an answer to my question. It’s not an unobvious question; as I was just about back to the farm Jerome called to check on my progress, and when I told him about the news report his first question was: how big is the Kentucky state budget? I told him that I didn’t know and that no one was saying, but that when I got home I would look it up.

Today after lunch I remembered, and so I first went to Google News to find any articles that had been written on the subject. There were about ten, five of them just repeating the AP news story, five others by different Kentucky news organizations. None of them mentioned how big the Kentucky state budget is. The two articles that came closest to answering the question contained this passage, verbatim:

He released an internal forecast, done by his budget office, that put the shortfall at between $818 million and $1.09 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That would be 8.8 percent to 11.8 percent of the state’s General Fund revenue.

Now, this actually doesn’t make any sense, but if you think about it what the passage refers to as “the state’s General Fund revenue” must be the budget. Which means that $818 million is 8.8 percent of the budget, and $1.09 billion is 11.8 percent of the budget … which means that the budget must be about $9.25. A quick check of the Kentucky state website confirms that.

Was the abovementioned passage an effort on the part of the news reporters to avoid answering my simple question? I don’t think so, since both of them contained reported that passage (and much else besides) with identical words. I think those words came from a state press release. Was the state trying to avoid highlighting the question? I don’t know; it may have been answered somewhere else in the release.

What bothers me (but doesn’t surprise me) is that without knowing the size of the budget, the size of the shortfall is meaningless, no news at all. Yet I doubt that anyone who heard this “news” thought that a critical piece was missing, much less took the trouble to track it down. And I wonder if it occurred to anyone who reported this story that a critical piece was missing.

Do I feel smarter than the average news consumer for having noticed this? No, not really. I certainly don’t feel any smarter after learning how large the Kentucky state budget is—because I don’t really know how to view a 10% shortfall. A 90% shortfall would be bad. A 1% shortfall would be negligible. How painful will it be for the state to manage a 10% shortfall? I have no idea, and I’m not really interested in doing the research and thinking it would take to answer that particular question.

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