To Post or Not to Post
By Jeff South
Should a newspaper post on its Web site a database of city employees and their salaries?
Jeff South is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been a reporter and editor at newspapers in Arizona, Texas and Virginia.
* No, says Geoff Dougherty, a reporter for the Miami Herald. "I'm trying to think of a legitimate news interest served in publishing every municipal salary, and I can't. If there's something interesting about the salary--it's high, it's got a lot of overtime attached, it's the mayor's--then it should be highlighted in an article. If not, then it seems like a list would just serve to embarrass a bunch of city-employed janitors and file clerks."
* Yes, says Lee Sands, who left the Denver Business Journal to start QuickInfo.net, an online public-records company. "This isn't a conversation about newspapers; it's the Internet. People should be able to actively participate in their own newsgathering. What modern-day media [need] to understand is that [they] can facilitate it, or become a thing of the past. So put the data up, and let people determine their own facts."
* No, "and not because my own salary is a public record," says Steve Doig, who was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Miami Herald in 1993 and now teaches journalism at Arizona State University. "Our access to public records is dependent on the whim of legislators who will close records almost by reflex if just a few people are affected. Imagine how legislators who don't much like us anyway will respond if we goad thousands of their constituents to complain about invasion of privacy done for no better reason than 'we can do it.' "
* Yes, says Nora Paul, the Poynter Institute's news research expert--and Doig's sister. Salaries are of interest to the taxpaying public, she says. "I believe public records are just that: public. The newspapers' role should always be to facilitate access."###