When publishing salaries of public officials, do so responsibly

by | Oct 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/October 2009

Publish the salaries of government officials and two reactions are almost guaranteed. Some citizens will express outrage at the level of pay for what they perceive as a lack of performance, and some identified employees will charge that the newspaper is invading their privacy.

Monitoring salaries of public officials is at the heart of a newspaper’s watchdog role. At the same time, even though most public officials expect a certain “nakedness,” they deserve responsible treatment of public information.

In simplest terms, salaries are public information. Salaries represent a significant share of government budgets – even exceeding 75 percent in instances.

The quality of teachers is a major predictor of student achievement. The effectiveness of prosecutors has much to do with which individuals are jailed. City administrators wield great influence in carrying out daily operations at city hall. Citizens – taxpayers – deserve to have the ability to judge whether these individuals are overpaid, underpaid or just in line with their expectations.

As newsworthy as public salaries are, however, newsrooms ought to have policies for their publication and do it on their terms, not readers’ terms.

Reader frustration with government frequently prompts the question: How much is an individual making anyway? Newspapers that respond to these queries on a whim have poor justification for singling out specific individuals. Furthermore, the process is haphazard at best and falls short of presenting readers with a complete and meaningful representation of salaries.

Instead, approach the publication of salaries in a sensible manner. The most appropriate time for listing them is when salaries are negotiated. Another opportunity is when budgets are finalized.

Deciding to publish salaries is the first decision. How to report them is another challenge.

Reporting union settlements is fairly straightforward. It’s common practice to identify the terms of wages and salaries and any significant “language” changes affecting employment. Reporters also should pay attention to health insurance benefits and pensions as escalating costs are drawing increased scrutiny – and changes in employer/employee contributions – in both the public and private sectors. Stories usually include no names, just numbers.

Circumstances are different when reporting raises for nonunion, or salaried, employees. For these individuals, their names are often synonymous with the positions. It’s a reasonable practice for newspapers to list salaries for Supt. Jim Johnson, City Administrator Sue Olson or Sheriff Jerry Brown.

These suggested guidelines are not without their detractors. I recall well a comment from a city chemist whose salary was published along with the other – albeit more visible – nonunion employees. He asked: Is it truly in the public interest to list the salaries of local government workers by name? Moreover, shouldn’t the newspaper be consistent and print the salaries of every public employee – union as well as nonunion – at all levels of government?

As explained then, withholding names from the positions is at cross-purposes with a newspaper’s mission to provide the full menu of information. That’s nearly as bad as giving misinformation. And though the ideal situation would be to print all salaries, that becomes a difficult task.

One reason to print government salaries is to allow private employers to size themselves against the public sector. For employees, the information might be a bargaining chip. For employers, it shows how tough the competition is.

The issue boils down to consistency: Print all salaries or none at all. If newspapers had the resources, they would treat all government employees alike.

Newspapers should be as thorough as possible with wages of all public employees. They also must recognize that any policy will be second-guessed, and no system will be perfect.

Finally, publishing the wages falls under the category of protecting the rights the press has earned. Newspapers are wise to resolve to keep public business in the public.