As the possible government shutdown makes headlines this week, news organizations have been creating interactive graphics to illustrate information about the budget in ways that traditional narratives can’t.
The interactives help readers see the size and scope of President Obama’s proposed budget and, in some cases, compare it to the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan. Some interactives allow users to decide who gets what. The New York Times, for instance, created a “You fix the budget” graphic that lets readers make their own choices about what programs they would or wouldn’t cut, and how they would or wouldn’t adjust tax rates.
I’ve highlighted a few interactives that I think are especially well done, and talked with the journalists involved in creating them to learn more about why they work so well and how they can help readers better understand the budget.
This easy-to-use interactive features five tabs that let readers see information about receipts and outlays, deficit forecasts, cash flow and more.
“It’s a modification of a graphic we’ve been doing each year for a number of years,” said Wall Street Journal News Editor Kate Ortega. “In past years, it has drawn readers all year, in part because it’s so SEO-friendly and easy to understand. It doesn’t really move or flash, which makes it easy to get up onto the site quickly when the numbers are available.”
Readers can use this interactive to select a spending category and then compare the GOP proposal with Obama’s.
“It’s one of the simplest types of graphics that we do, but in this case, the story really needed exactly that,” said Information Designer Wilson Andrews, noting that the Post has received emails from readers expressing their appreciation for the graphic. “The budget story has dominated the week’s news, and much of what’s been written has compared spending numbers between the proposals. Actually visualizing that comparison can be a lot more tangible for readers.”
The stacked bar charts in this interactive allow users to quickly compare the two proposed budgets.
“What this graphic does that a story cannot is to focus the eye on the differences, per category, of the two different approaches to government’s funding and its responsibility,” said David Beard, National Journal’s digital editor and deputy editor-in-chief. “The most striking difference in this graphic is with Medicaid, a much, much slimmer slice of the budget Ryan proposed than the Obama version. What would that difference mean for our society?’’
This interactive shows not just the overall cost of each program, but how much it works out to for the average American household.
“Once you start throwing around numbers in the billions, I think people tend to not have a great sense of the relative size of things — all the numbers sound huge,” said Matthew Ericson, deputy graphics editor at the Times. “But if you show that the National Park Service’s discretionary budget of $2.89 billion works out to $25.45 per household, it’s easier to understand just how small that is compared to something like Social Security, which is $7,112 per household, or $808 billion in total.”
He noted that there are toggles on the left-hand side of the interactive that allow users to flip the chart so that it just shows mandatory spending, or just discretionary spending. “Hiding mandatory spending really helps show how small a percentage of the budget is discretionary spending,” he said, “and how trying to solve the long-term budget issues without addressing mandatory spending would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.”
This interactive compares the proposed budget for 2012 with 2011 GOP budget cuts. It also features a simplified primer on the federal budget process.
“The visualizations offer the user a quick snapshot of the priorities of the budget request,” said Shazna Nessa, the AP’s director of interactive. “The sizes and colors of the shapes inform faster and more easily. Imagine having to deal with that data in a table or a spreadsheet; it would be hard to compare the numbers quickly, not to mention, dry. These visual methods make the topic more accessible.”
If no budget agreement is reached, the government shutdown would begin at midnight Friday.