Reporting salaries a distortion of reality

December 13, 2004|by Claude H. Sasse

In a column written for The Herald-Mail on Nov. 14, (Page C1) Liz Thompson, city editor, writes that "nothing sparks as much reader feedback as when we publish the salaries of public employees."

Thompson's statement alludes to The Herald-Mail's decision to publish the salaries of county landfill employees, with overtime pay culled out and appearing in a visual as a lone number. Further, she promises that salaries of Board of Education employees will make news "in the coming weeks."

But in the Nov. 14 column, Thompson does not clarify either her source(s) or The Herald-Mail's source(s) of "reader feedback." Published reader comments in response to the landfill article, however, did appear as telephoned-in, in unsigned opinions in "You Said It" (Morning Herald) and "Mail Call" (Daily Mail). Among those unidentified opinions were countless unfavorable, sometimes caustic remarks, some of which may not have served as morale boosters for landfill employees.


By publishing only inclusive salaries of landfill employees, The Herald-Mail denied readers information relevant to the employee group's performance. Taken alone, a dollar amount reveals nothing about employee work, scope or aptitude; i.e., expertise, experience, accountability, level of competence. Perhaps, "reader feedback" in both "You Said It' and "Mail Call" would have been less derisive and controversial had relevant information about landfill employees' contribution to the county work force been reported.

In that same column, Thompson promises to provide the taxpayers with additional information they "want to know" by publishing Board of Education salaries "in the coming weeks." But the slant of a salary story about teachers may allow teachers - like landfill employees - to become scapegoats, subject to censure and ridicule in both "You Said It" and "Mail Call."

As a result of the landfill story, as well as Thompson's comments, teachers have already been berated as county employees whose salary represents eight hours of work, 180 days a year.

Such "reader feedback" remains intact unless the scope of teacher work is subsequently reported. Furthermore, The Herald Mail may titillate the public with "surprising information" (Thompson, Nov. 14) by printing lone numbers as teachers' salaries.

Unfortunately, salaries near or at the top of the teacher pay scale may represent, in print, inflated amounts because many teachers choose extra work for extra pay - specifically coaching, tutoring, serving as department chairs, attending workshops, teaching summer school, etc.

Finally, because they interact daily with the sons and daughters of Washington Countians, teachers are unique county employees. To teach, teachers must establish and maintain a classroom decorum that separates them from their students.

As an educator and an advocate for literacy, The Herald Mail sponsors a "Newspaper in Education" program, used in both elementary and secondary schools. But is newspaper use viable in a classroom if teachers are subjects of slanted reporting and/or ridiculed in Herald-Mail-endorsed opinion columns? How appropriate is the denigration of their teacher for a classroom of young readers? Perhaps only comprehensive reporting allows educated responses from readers.

The mission of all public employee groups should be community building. To that end, both The Morning Herald and The Daily Mail can serve as a helpmate in community relations; unfounded, jaded opinions thrive when negativism festers. Let's give all public employee groups the credit they deserve.

Claude H. Sasse is president of the Washington County Teachers Association.

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