7 mistakes journalists make when covering the debt ceiling debate (& how to avoid them)

The federal debt ceiling debate has become an important story across the U.S. as politicians continue to clash over how to handle the crisis. Negotiations between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner collapsed on Friday then resumed this weekend, leaving even greater uncertainty about how, and when, an agreement will be reached.

Earlier this month, the debate drove coverage of the economy to its highest level in three months, and to its second highest level all year, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., holds his hand up as he whispers to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, during a photo opportunity in the House Speaker’s office before a meeting on the debt limit increase on Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday, July 23, 2011. (Harry Hamburg/AP)

Part of the reason this national story is so important is because of all its local implications. If the ceiling isn’t raised by the Aug. 2 deadline, states could be stripped of many of the federal payments they rely on and face serious cash-flow problems.

This is a complicated story to report on if you’ve been fully immersed in it, let alone if you’re asked to cover it without much prior knowledge of the crisis. To help, we’ve collected tips from journalists at CNBC, Fortune and NPR’s Planet Money. Here are seven common mistakes to avoid when covering the crisis.

Mistake #1: The debt ceiling limits the spending of the U.S. government.

House Republicans who are resisting a rise in the debt ceiling often make this argument, said NPR correspondent Robert Smith, who’s covered the debt issue for Planet Money. He explained that the government only spends money when it is approved by Congress, which has already approved the budget for this year and promised money to Medicaid and the Department of Defense. Issuing the debt is just the final step that enables us to pay our bills.

“The way I put it is that Congress has already ordered the pizza. They approved the pepperoni. They called up and had someone deliver it,” Smith said via email. “Now the pizza guy is knocking at the door, and asking to get paid. If you don’t raise the debt ceiling, it’s like saying we didn’t want that pizza in the first place. Maybe he’ll go away if we don’t answer.”

If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, much of the government will have to shut down. “That’s a brutal way of limiting spending,” Smith said. “But even then we’ll still owe the money we already budgeted. We just won’t be paying it until the crisis is over.”

Mistake #2: If the debt limit increase doesn’t pass, the U.S. will default on Aug. 2.

The word that people commonly use to describe what will happen if the debt limit isn’t raised by Aug. 2 is “default.” It’s true that the U.S. will run out of money because there isn’t enough revenue to cover the Social Security payment that’s due. But, Smith explained, “default” has a technical meaning in the markets.

“Default means that we don’t pay the interest on our loans. Default means that the world will stop trusting our government debt,” he said. “But there is enough money that comes in every month from tax revenues to pay the interest. If the U.S. government delays paying social security recipients and delays military paychecks, there will be enough money to keep U.S. bonds good.”

This would likely still panic the market, anger a lot of people and cause the U.S. to go into recession, “but it might not technically be default on our bonds.”

Mistake #3: The U.S. government is like a family that needs to balance the budget.

People sometimes compare the U.S. government to a family balancing its budget, or say our debt is like a credit card that has a limit on it. These are handy metaphors, Smith said, but they can be misleading.

Unlike a family, which cuts its budget because it makes a limited amount of money, the government can raise its income through taxes whenever it wants. If a family could get a 10 percent raise at will, then it would be less likely to cut its budget.

“Unlike a family, the government can print its own money to make its debts seems smaller,” Smith said. “Unlike a family, the government owes much of the debt to itself.”

A big part of the U.S. debt, he explained, is money that one branch of government owes to the other.

“Like Mom lending Dad some cash. You don’t count that in a family. But we do count it in the debt ceiling debate,” Smith said. “And another biggie. Credit card companies eventually want their money back. But foreign governments own Treasury bonds as a way to store money. They don’t want the money back (yet). They just keep rolling over the debt.”

Mistake #4: The U.S. government has never defaulted.

U.S. debt is the safest in the world, but it’s not entirely accurate to say the government hasn’t ever defaulted, Smith said.

“According to the economist Carmen Reinhart, the U.S. defaulted on international debt in 1790. She also says that we defaulted on gold obligations in 1933,” Smith said. “Plus, many states have defaulted.”

Mistake #5: The U.S. debt is mostly owned by China.

Actually, the U.S. owes most of the money to itself. Only one-third of the debt, Smith said, is held by foreigners. China, the largest of the foreign countries that hold debt, has about 8 percent of the total U.S. debt.

Mistake #6: Wall street is worried.

It’s easy to generalize that Wall Street is worried, but it’s better to focus on what’s happening than on how Wall Street is feeling about it.

“Don’t believe what investors say,” Smith said. “Believe what they do.”

Investors may say they’re worried, but “so far there are no signs of panic in the financial markets. The price on U.S. treasuries has held steady and even gone up a little through the debt ceiling debate,” Smith said. “Now, some might argue that the crisis in Europe means that more money is pouring into U.S. treasuries and that has masked any sense of panic.” That could be an indication that Wall Street is worried about Europe, but it’s hard to tell.

Goldstein went on to say that interest rates on treasury bonds are especially low, which suggests that investors think the U.S. is continuing to pay its debt.

Mistake #7: Giving equal weight to politicians.

Finding reliable sources is one of the biggest challenges journalists face when covering this story. “They just don’t have sources on Wall Street and inside the analysis firms to help them understand what’s happening and what it means,” said Eamon Javers, CNBC Washington correspondent.

Journalists tend to turn to politicians as sources rather than to financial experts. And they try to equally represent both sides of the political spectrum. Allan Sloan, a senior editor at large at Fortune, said that works for some stories, but not this one.

“This is not the kind of story where you can give equal weight to what everyone says,” he explained by phone. “There’s a lot of screaming by people who are politically informed but not financially informed, and they’re being quoted along someone like Ben Bernanke.”

When interviewing politicians about the debt debate, Sloan said, it’s worth asking: “Do you have a political stake in this?” or “Do you or your family stand to benefit financially from the default?”

“There are plenty of people who say it’s all going to be fine, and I think they’re out of their minds,” Sloan said. “I suspect that some of the people who say it will be good for America stand to benefit from the default.”

Given the range of political opinions on this issue, it helps to have a good BS detector, Javers said. “It can be that much more difficult than ever to know when you’re being spun,” he said. “But I think the media has been doing a good job of quickly digesting complicated economic jargon and doing what reporters do best — sorting out the BS from the reality.”

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  • http://twitter.com/stretchyhead Ian Tuttle

    Um, the U.S. did NOT default on foreign debt in 1790 (as stated in point #4). Quite the contrary. Read Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s own speech (dated 1790), or the essay discussing his policy.

    speech: http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/archive/resources/documents/ch08_02.htm

    essay: http://www.gilderlehrman.org/teachers/scholars/HSP04.AH11.Pertz.pdf

    “States, like individuals, who observe their engagements, are respected and trusted: while the reverse is the fate of those, who pursue an opposite conduct.” -Alexander Hamilton

  • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

    No, it’s like realizing that you can’t afford that private jet you have on order, and the jet salesman tells you that he’s going to report you to the credit bureaus if you don’t cancel your pizza AND your insulin prescription so you can pay him, since cancelling the jet order is unthinkable.

  • Grumpy Demo

    “parents just printing more money”? A  criminal act called counterfeiting?

    “faulty” analogy heal thy self.

    P.S. Econ 101 with a passing grade wouldn’t hurt either.

  • Samuel Ebersole

    Charley Field hit the nail on the head pointing out Smith’s faulty pizza analogy. But how about the family analogy. Instead of the parents just printing more money when they run out of cash (or raising taxes “whenever it wants”), they’re going down to the local bank and taking out a loan in their kids’ names. That doesn’t sound like good parenting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=676366185 Charley Field

    Robert Smith failed to portray a different way to look at the debt ceiling. He says that limiting the debt ceiling is like ordering a pizza and then not paying for it, and says that’s a brutal way of cutting spending; however, the debt ceiling is not what has changed, so budgeting for more than we can spend is a rather immature way of increasing spending. It’s not ordering a pizza and then refusing to pay for it, it’s ordering a pizza when you know you don’t have the money for it. I guess the question is whether or not someone thinks it’s worse to buy something you can’t afford, or to not pay when you don’t have the money.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Good point, R Thomas. Journalists won’t necessarily get an honest answer to this question, but it’s worth asking nonetheless. Could be worth looking into the answer, too, if there’s reason to doubt the validity of it.

    ~Mallary

  • http://rtberner.blogspot.com/ R Thomas Berner

    “Do you or your family stand to benefit financially from the default?”

    I wonder if journalists would get an honest answer. There have been postings on Facebook that Eric Kantor stands to make a bundle if the U.S. defaults. I have seen the any story on that yet. Perhaps a round-up story on in Congress who will benefit would be of service.

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  • http://twitter.com/USChinaFuture FutureofUSChinaTrade

    Great points of clarification on this important subject.

    RE: China’s holdings of US government debt, and the implications, we have a backgrounder for journalists (to help them get the US-China story straight) here: http://www.futureofuschinatrade.com/article/why-chinese-holdings-us-government-debt-so-large