As government shutdown looms, 5 interactives explain the budget battle

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.

The Wall Street Journal

The interactive uses pie charts to show how the Obama administration plans to bring in revenue, and spend money, in fiscal 2011.

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."

The Washington Post

"We can tell by traffic data, as well as the number of Facebook recommends and tweets, that people are using the graphic," said Deputy Graphics Editor Karen Yourish. In addition to the interactive pictured here, the Post created another one that looks at how Obama's federal spending compares to that of his predecessors.

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."

National Journal

"Interactivity added a way to isolate relationships and reveal additional context and analysis," said Graphics Director Ryan Morris. "A simple yet compelling way to tell a story." 

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?’’

The New York Times

"The budget is a pretty massive and complex document, so there's no one perfect way to visualize it, but we thought the treemap chart form helped break it down into a couple of understandable levels," said Deputy Graphics Editor Matthew Ericson.

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."

Associated Press

Users can roll over the colored fields for details. When rolling over the Social Security field, for instance, users can see how much of the budget is mandatory Social Security spending.

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.

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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