New York Daily News reporter Aliyah Shahid is clearest on what won’t be affected: “Services that are deemed ‘essential’ like national security and emergency services. During the last government shutdown, the post office still delivered mail and Social Security checks were eventually sent out.” CNN Money suggests military units overseas won’t be affected, either.

While some Pentagon activities would stop, it would continue many other operations necessary for the safety of human life and protection of property.

In a statement to CNNMoney, a Pentagon spokeswoman said, “We will do everything we have to do to continue to support the deployed troops.”

Meanwhile, Robert Schroeder at Market Watch reminds us that it’s not just shutdown we should be worried about: the less scary-sounding “debt ceiling,” itself a looming fiscal debate to be had, could have consequences even farther reaching than shutting down.

Failure to raise the debt limit would affect a broad range of benefits, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned in a letter to lawmakers in January. Among those payments to be “discontinued, limited, or adversely affected,” Geithner said, would be: Medicare and Social Security benefits, veterans’ benefits, unemployment benefits to states and individual and corporate tax refunds.

The results of hitting the debt limit would be different than the shutdown that would result from Congress failing to pass a budget. The budget fight is about appropriations to keep government agencies running. Hitting the debt limit would mean that many agencies couldn’t make payments.

As the budget debate goes on and these terms and others edge their way into more headlines, it’s important that journalists give them the explanations they may require. The above reports have done a good job. And while day-to-day reports on negotiations this week have neither space nor need for these kind sof comprehensive explainers, they could draw from them to contextualize the stakes of the debate taking place.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.