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From AJR,   April 2000  issue

No Secrets   

With more and more public records being posted on news Web sites, privacy can seem like a quaint, outdated notion. Are there any limits to what should be considered fair game?

Related reading:   To Post or Not to Post
  What's Out There?

By Jeff South
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.     

With a few clicks on the Philadelphia Inquirer's Web site, here's what you can find out about John and Chara Haas:

They live on Spring Mill Road in Villanova. They're retired. They gave $25,250 to the Philadelphia mayoral campaign of Happy Fernandez, who was eliminated in last May's Democratic primary. John Haas gave $25,000 more to Republican nominee Sam Katz, who lost the November 2 election to Democrat John Street. That's all from philly.com's database of political contributions.

Switch to another Inquirer database, called "Who owns the Jersey Shore?" It says Chara Haas does, for one: She's got a $383,300 summer home on a 55-by-115-foot lot in Cape May. Hit the Web site's crime database. It says the Haases' Villanova home is in one of the region's safest areas, with an annual average of 1.17 violent crimes per 1,000 residents and no murders in recent years. Then visit the site's education database. The Haases live in a school district where 87 percent of the students are white, 16 percent are in special-education programs and 97 percent of the high school seniors take the SAT. The median teacher salary in the district is $70,232. The highest-paid teacher makes $81,797. Philly.com doesn't say who that is.

But if you're looking for the names and salaries of teachers--at least those who coach sports--try the Atlanta Journal and Constitution's Web site. It features a database with pay stats for the 1998-99 school year on every football coach at every public high school in Georgia. They range from Al Reaves, who makes $89,615 as superintendent of the Putnam County schools and head coach of the War Eagles football team, to Chris Smith, who earns $29,665 as a teacher and assistant coach in Madison County.

Ajc.com gives you a breakdown of the $29,774 that social studies teacher Ronnie Mims made: a base of $26,074, plus $3,700 for coaching and other work at rural Glascock High School, which in October won its first football game since 1990. Mims doesn't mind talking about his team's record: With only 150 students, Glascock High has trouble rounding up enough players, much less scoring touchdowns. But the coach doesn't see why his salary should be open to anyone with an Internet connection. "It bothers me," he says. "I know it's public information and all, but the fact that it's out there for anybody to see... I feel it's an invasion of privacy."

John Haas, a retired chemical manufacturing executive, feels the same way about philly.com's databases. "I suppose you could go down to the courthouse and find this information about me. But having it so readily available on the Internet is troubling."

The flip side is that the public has rights, too: the right to know how taxes are spent, how property is appraised, and who's giving money to politicians. The database of coaches' salaries was part of a Journal-Constitution package, published in the newspaper and online, called "Pay Dirt! The Big Business of High School Football." It revealed, among other things, that head football coaches on average got paid 55 percent more than teachers and that 10 coaches made more than the Georgia lieutenant governor's $75,724 annual salary.

Every day, newspapers must weigh the public's right to know against an individual's right to privacy. But that balancing act usually is circumscribed by a finite newshole: Space limitations force papers to prioritize what public information should be published. In its print editions, the Journal-Constitution listed salaries only for head coaches of the state's 312 public high school football teams. Those space constraints vanish on the Internet, which lets news outlets post massive amounts of searchable data--from political donations and school test scores to home values and restaurant inspections. Ajc.com's "Pay Dirt!" database included the names and salaries of 2,400 coaches, including assistants.

"Online, you can roll it all out," says David Milliron, the Journal-Constitution's director of computer-assisted reporting. "It's a way of saying, 'Go ahead, check our numbers.' When the public can pull up the raw data and see for themselves, it adds credibility."

Milliron has been busy acting on that philosophy: In December, for an investigation into gender equity in school athletics, he posted pay data on 22,000 high school coaches of all sports in Georgia public schools. He also published a national database of all Title IX complaints since 1985. This year, he hopes to open a data warehouse on the Web, with Georgia's death, marriage and divorce records back to 1964. Milliron says the message to readers is: "We want to be your source of information"--not just news stories.

Such ventures have prompted soul-searching among journalists about the news media's role in the information age. Philip Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, framed the issue this way in an online discussion group:

"Are journalists transporters of information, or are we value-added processors?.. As more data are routinely added to the Web, some have said that this is journalism at its most democratic, with every reader becoming his or her own editor. The counter view, and my own, is that the great surplus of information makes value-added processing more important than ever before. Let other people post lists. We'll select, distill, interpret and explain them."

Some reporters agree with Meyer that newspapers should avoid being data purveyors. "Our job is to filter information, to tell people what's really important," says Drew Sullivan, a member of the projects team at the Tennessean in Nashville. He bristles at the idea of posting property values and most other databases that identify people.

"I tend to draw the line when the names of individual citizens are included," Sullivan says. "We have to consider readers' concerns about privacy."

Legally, reporters have a right to databases of public records; technologically, it is easy to post them on the Internet. "But just because we can do it does not mean we necessarily should do it," Sullivan says.

But he makes an exception for political contributions. "Campaign contributions are a conscious effort to affect public policy. That's fair game" to put online, says Sullivan, who, before joining the Nashville paper, helped the Associated Press build a database library for internal use.

Tom Boyer, research editor at the Seattle Times, takes a more liberal Web-posting view. He says putting data online is a legitimate public-service role for newspapers. "I think it is very sad that everybody seems on the defensive about putting controversial stuff or lists on the Web, as if Internet publication is somehow more powerful or problematic than paper publication."

Property assessments and government salaries are important information, Boyer says. "I don't see why the Web suddenly turns public service into 'Big Brother Internet Knows Everything.' There is so much paranoia about the Web; I think the only way to overcome it is for news media to be aggressive about putting data online. Do it carefully, do it thoughtfully, but disclose as much as possible and don't be defensive."

And Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Virginia, points to another important function newspapers perform by posting databases of public records: They are "sending out an alert to the public about what kind of information the government holds about them."

"What newspapers are doing is [testing] our commitment to an open society," he adds. "The fact of the matter is that if we do not think that some information should be available about our private lives, we should be questioning not why the newspaper got hold of it, but why government is spending tax dollars to collect and disseminate it to begin with."

The split among journalists over how much data should be posted online was evident in March 1999 on the e-mail discussion list of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. Griff Palmer, database editor at the Daily Oklahoman, triggered the debate with this question: "If you had a copy of a particular arm of government's payroll--say, for instance, the entire payroll of a metropolitan municipality--would you put it up on the Web in an interactive form, so that users could enter any public employee's name and see how much that employee makes?"

For competitive reasons, Palmer was masking his query: What he had was the database for all Oklahoma state employees. But from some responses, one might think he had plans for a nuclear bomb.

Shawn Neidorf, a reporter for the trade magazine Venture Capital Journal, replied: "I cannot see the news value in posting the salary of some lowly City Hall secretary next to her name, except to subject her to whispers and snickers at the grocery store or in the church lobby: 'Gosh, that's a nice dress Sally is wearing. I wonder how she can afford it. Did you see her salary, Madge? It's on the paper's Web site.' "

But others urged Palmer to post the full database of government workers and their pay. "Put it up. It isn't even a question," wrote Lee Sands, a former Denver Business Journal reporter. "They work for the government; their salaries are public record." Sands, who now runs an online public records firm called QuickInfo.net, said the Internet "redefines the concept of news. Just because something doesn't make an interesting story doesn't mean it won't make an interesting database."

In the end, Palmer got a solid story out of the data--about public employees who made more in overtime than in regular pay because of staff shortages. At his recommendation, the Oklahoman decided not to put the data online. The only names it published were those in the story.

Other papers have reached very different decisions. In December 1997, the Augusta Chronicle in Georgia published "The Public's Payroll" about the 40,800 people who worked for the area's government agencies, from the Savannah River nuclear station to towns like Hephzibah (population 3,336). The paper got salary records from myriad public entities, compiled them into a database and planned to post it all on its Web site, says Executive Editor Dennis Sodomka.

"We agonized over whether it was fair to publish the salary of every clerk and every low-level, low-salaried person in the police department and city government," Sodomka says. "We decided that ultimately, we should publish," for several reasons: Salaries are the major cost of government; people are entitled to the information, but most don't have time to track it down; the paper should be the readers' advocate in providing the numbers.

But the online staff ran into technical problems and could not get the searchable database to work, Sodomka says. So the Web site listed only the 428 public employees who made $100,000 or more; the top-paid person in certain jobs in the three-county area, including a mail carrier ($43,165) and bus driver ($26,710); and the three highest-paid officials in each law enforcement agency, who in the Hephzibah Police Department included a patrol officer making $19,950.

Many public employees called "to complain that we were invading their privacy," Sodomka says. Others shunned him and his wife, Pat, a public hospital administrator, at holiday parties.

At the Journal-Constitution, Milliron got a similar reaction to the package on football coaches' salaries, including a letter addressed to "Resident Butthole," now tacked to a newsroom bulletin board. But Milliron says readers have found the database interesting: They have searched it more than 1 million times.

As more journalists become comfortable with computer-assisted reporting tools, databases have proliferated in newsrooms. Reporters are gathering data, from voter registration rolls and city budgets, and using them to find angles for stories that government officials would not likely have handed them in a press release.

In recent years, software and programming tools such as ColdFusion and Perl have made it easy to put these databases on the Web. Many of them are clearly newsworthy and Networthy, says Ted Mellnik, the database editor at North Carolina's Charlotte Observer. His paper has posted crime reports online, searchable by date and street (but, for privacy reasons, without specific addresses or names of victims and suspects), and test scores for each grade at each school in North Carolina. (It also posted less serious information, showing the number of licensed dogs and cats and the most popular breeds and pet names in each ZIP code.) "There just isn't any room to do this in print," Mellnik says.

But it's one thing to post data for institutions, or to provide geographic summaries or records that don't identify people. It's another thing when a database names names.

Consider the precautions the Charlotte Observer took when it posted its area's property-assessment databases. "We wanted to go carefully, respecting people's privacy," Mellnik says. So the paper made the property records searchable two ways: You could search by someone's name and "look up a big shot's home," but you wouldn't get the address. Or you could search by an address and "see all the values on a particular street," but you wouldn't get the owners' names.

In Memphis, Tennessee, however, the Commercial-Appeal had no such qualms when it posted its area's residential property-assessment records. The paper put all the data online, and searches returned all information available, including the owner's name and the property's address and values. The editorial staff pondered the privacy issue, says projects editor Sonny Albarado. "Our thinking was that while we were making it easier to find out a person's property values, you could go to the assessor's office and look up the records yourself."

To many journalists, the debate centers on how the news media will use the Internet, and whether newspapers will apply the same standards to their print and online products. The Internet has changed newspapers' gatekeeper role, says Don Porter, a reporter for the South Bend Tribune in Indiana. During the online debate over government payroll data, he wrote that newspapers should "post the information and let readers do with it what they will."

"The advent of the Web gives us the ability to make all types of information available to people in a raw, unprocessed form," Porter wrote. "It may be highly valuable to some people and of absolutely no use to others. But it is something that is of potential use to those we claim to serve, so I think we should make it available to them if we can."

Some journalists gagged on those comments. "I have no objection to publishing the salaries of high public officials or the pay ranges for various job classifications, but publicizing Joe Blow the meter reader's salary seems more than a little intrusive. And for no good reason," wrote Frank Boyett, a reporter for the Gleaner, in Henderson, Kentucky. "The only thing such a database would be used for--let's be honest here--is for the gratuitous invasion of an individual's privacy... In the end, you have to decide what kind of newspaper--or Web site--you want to be."

Every reporter contacted for this story said government salaries, property assessments and other public records deserve scrutiny and that papers should print specific examples--even lists--of people who reflect a news peg, such as public employees making gobs of overtime or homeowners with under-assessed properties. Where the reporters diverged was on whether papers should post an entire database with every record, showing both people who reflect a trend and those who don't.

A danger in posting possibly intrusive data, some journalists say, is that people will complain and persuade government officials to cut off access. Several journalists cited what happened after actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by a stalker in California in 1989: Politicians blamed the availability of motor vehicle records and closed them to the public, including reporters.

Phil Williams, a reporter for WTVF, the CBS affiliate in Nashville, says a similar backlash occurred last year in Tennessee. Williams matched databases to find felons--including a kidnapper, sex offenders and drug dealers--who had slipped through the school system's background checks and been hired as teachers. "The reaction from area teachers was sheer panic: 'Oh, my God, look at all this information he was able to secure about us,' " Williams says. Raising the specter of identity theft, teachers lobbied the Tennessee Legislature, which decided that Social Security numbers--a key to Williams' investigation--should be exempt from disclosure, along with other information.

That's a lesson for journalists who would post government payroll data, Williams says. "You could say, 'Damn the torpedoes and the privacy, it's our money these people are taking home.' But it's possible you could be hurting your own cause in the long run," he says.

But Boyer says there is a danger in not posting pay records. "If we start shying away from printing or publishing on the Web salaries, we lead people to believe that this information is private.... And if voters of your community aren't entitled to know how much employees are paid, how can they keep their local government honest?" He feels the same way about property-assessment records. "If you take assessors' records and decide as a news media organization that they should really be private, you're doing a huge disservice. Without that information widely available, how can you have any idea whether you have a fair system of local property taxes?"

Other journalists say there are alternatives to posting an entire database. Instead of putting up every public employee and his or her salary, some suggested listing salary ranges or the median and top salaries for each job title--or posting data only for elected officials and policymaking employees.

"My main criterion is: Is it news?" says Tom Torok, who left a job as senior Web applications developer for the Philadelphia Inquirer to become database editor at the New York Times. He says campaign contributions meet that definition because of their public-policy implications. But a database of each teacher's name and salary probably wouldn't.

Newspapers shouldn't justify posting a database by how many people view it, Sullivan says. "You could put up naked pictures of Pamela Anderson, and they'd get a million hits, too. But that doesn't mean you're doing a service for the reader."

Before posting a database, news organizations should consider its accuracy. "We cannot just accept everything we receive, especially from government agencies, as guaranteed accurate," Porter says. Some papers learned that the hard way: by relying on or linking to state-issued databases of sex offenders, then realizing some records were wrong.

And if a newspaper puts data online, it has a responsibility to keep them current, says Nora Paul, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute. That's a challenge for many papers: As of March, the Philadelphia Inquirer hadn't updated its database of Jersey Shore property values since 1996 (Torok says it was story-specific and not meant to be updated); the Virginian-Pilot hadn't updated its crime reports since 1997; and the alternative newspaper Phoenix New Times hadn't updated its database of medical complaints since 1998.

New Times had posted the data to augment a May 1998 exposť of the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners. The database included 14,000 complaints filed with the board against 5,500 physicians since the 1980s. Each record said whether the investigation was still open, the doctor had been disciplined or, as happened 90 percent of the time, the case had been dismissed. "It was the first time in the state of Arizona that people had access to doctors' complaints" online, says Patti Epler, an associate editor at New Times.

But New Times hasn't updated the complaints since September 1998. In the meantime, the medical board posted its own database, containing all disciplinary actions for every licensed doctor in Arizona. Claudia Foutz, the medical board's executive director, says the New Times database is "not only outdated, but in some cases incorrect," because investigations listed as open have since been closed, and because the agency has fixed errors in older records.

New Times can't update its database because the board is not releasing new data comparable to that in the 1998 story, says Chris Farnsworth, who wrote the story for the weekly.

Such disputes show that databases, like news stories, involve judgment calls. Newspapers must weigh "the public service performed by publishing against the harm that we may do," says Palmer, whose salary question kicked off the debate on the NICAR discussion list.

"The news media have always made these kinds of decisions, sometimes being too cautious, sometimes being too reckless, but always trying to strike the right balance. It's part of what defines who we are," Palmer says. The debate over government payroll data, he says, shows that in the world of new media, "the friction between privacy rights and public-information rights gets even hotter than in the 'old' media."

Many journalists are searching for middle ground: They say the media should consider standards--such as newsworthiness, accuracy, currency and, yes, privacy--in deciding whether to put data online.

Meyer, who advocates using social science research methods in newsgathering, says that in deciding whether to post a database, newspapers should apply a "sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander" standard. He says he would routinely publish the salaries of government employees--"right after I had published the list of newspaper staff salaries."