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The new transparency: Newspapers mine public data, and not everyone’s happy about it

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Better get used to it, people. As governments increasingly place public information online, news organizations are going to demand access to it and print it — but not always with appropriate context. That must change.

Among the leaders of the data-mining charge appears to be media conglomerate Gannett Co. Inc., owner of 82 U.S. daily newspapers, including USA Today, and 23 television stations. You’ll recall that Gannett-owned The Journal News published an interactive map of addresses of gun-permit holders in the New York state counties of Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam.

The News has been roundly criticized for that act. But there are reasons for criticism beyond the rabid fear-mongering.

The News has a First Amendment right to print public information (lawyers would argue some limits do apply). But any newspaper printing public information, especially when unpopular, has the responsibility to carefully and intelligently construct context for those data. Simply printing that these households have a gun permit does not do a damn thing to advance a public debate about guns, deaths related to guns, and the Second Amendment.

In Wisconsin, a Gannett Wisconsin Media investigative team has begun a continuing series: “What We Pay: Your Tax Dollars and the Salaries They Support.” The series is published in Gannett’s Wisconsin papers.

In week one, the team examined salary information at Wisconsin’s public universities. The stories identify salary disparities among different disciplines (with business and finance profs earning the top salaries). They also show university football coaches and athletics administrators made million-dollar salaries — with one assistant football coach making more than half a million. Shocking, isn’t it, but hardly surprising.

The stories explain why disciplines differ in what salaries they can demand: market value and social value, providing some context for the raw data. But more context — deeper, more instructive context in stories heavily invested with face-to-face reporting — would serve readers better.

In week two, Gannett published the salaries of public school teachers, employees, and administrators in more than 400 Wisconsin school districts. That’s the salary records of more than 250,000 people.

Begin the obvious criticism: If you earn a paycheck, it’s likely you wish to keep that after-taxes figure to yourself. In America, it’s a cultural faux pax to ask someone, “So how much do you make?”

That criticism cannot offset the fact that tax dollars pay public school salaries. That’s public information. Nowadays, salary data exists in easily mined databases. Don’t want the public to know your salary? Consider a career in which taxpayers don’t pay your wages.

(But even then, your salary is in a database somewhere. As a fellow Scrogue points out, websites like Glassdoor provide ranges of salaries for various occupations and positions. Publicly held companies list salaries of senior positions. Like it or not, your salary is at risk of becoming public knowledge.)

The Gannett series ranks district salaries by report card scores, enrollment, average teacher salary, and district administrator salary. The series notes that “salaries vary widely across Wisconsin’s public school system, even among districts of similar size and location.”

In the weeks to come, Gannett plans to publish other city, county, and state public-employee salaries.

Get used to this. It will happen more often. But expect — in fact, demand — that news organizations provide the essential qualitative reporting to provide context around these quantitative data. This Wisconsin series is insufficient in that regard. Yes, various explanations are offered for discrepancies and patterns found, but they are not rich in nuance and lack well-reported depth of explanation.

Gannett is a national news organization. If it plans to increase its data-mining activities, it should scale them up — how do Wisconsin public teacher salaries compare with those in other states in which Gannett has a presence? What patterns can it discern? What explanations can it uncover?

News organizations should tell the human stories inherent in data. The Journal News did not do that with its gun-permit map. Gannett’s public salary series only scratches at the surface of what readers need to participate in a much wider debate on how society places value on the people it pays to serve it.

Journalism schools should take notice as well. If they’re teaching data-mining techniques, they should be damn sure first-rate data reporting and journalism ethics courses are required as well.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

January 13, 2013 at 7:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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