Editorial: Daily Post Owes Teachers Explanation
June 1, 2011
Many teachers felt that their privacy had been violated because of a recent article in the Daily Post releasing teacher salaries in the Sequoia Union High School District. While this information is public record, lack of context and biased word choice made the article not only insensitive but also an example of poor journalism.
The article, first published on April 1st with another installment following on the 2nd, consists of a spreadsheet containing salaries given out by the District. Teachers, administrators, and other employees are included in the chart, their salaries ranking from highest to lowest.
“I felt kind of exposed. Generally one thinks of one’s earnings as something private,” expressed English teacher Liane Strub.
However, under the California Public Records Act, the Daily Post has the right to publish the salaries of government employees.
“Think of it as an employee-employer kind of relationship,” says author of the Daily Post article, Ryan Riddle in response. “If I didn’t do anything right, my boss has the right to know because he pays me.”
Many feel that privacy could have been better respected if teachers were listed by field of education, bracket, and hours worked, rather than by name.
However, Riddle believes that “it puts a name to a face. Speaking for myself, it would be kind of uninteresting or foolish for a boss not to know who their employees are.” More like putting a dollar sign to a face, actually. And although teachers’ salaries are certainly an excellent pull factor for the Daily Post, simply including their names with no other analysis is in poor taste.
Teachers felt that at the very least, more background information could have been provided about these facts to explain the reasoning behind certain salaries. What analysis the Post did provide was headed with the inflammatory title “Little-Known Perks For Teachers.”
“The article seems manipulative because of its apparent bias in its wording and presentation. Overall, it could use more explanation,” says history teacher Jonathan Senigaglia.
“We gave their jobs and their salaries,” Riddle stated. “Would it have been more detailed if we had included things such as part time versus full time? Perhaps. It would have been more information, and more information is good.” Yes, more information is good.
The major flaws behind the article are a lack of research and context. Without such context, it appears that the story’s sole purpose is to incite antagonism against teachers.
“They’re going to try and justify cutting this salary or that expenditure,” math teacher Kristen Trent expressed. “I think there’s an agenda, for sure.”
The word “perk” specifically contributed to the article’s overall negative reception. The term, without context, is widely perceived as a benefit or privilege, and many feel it does not accurately express what teachers’ extra pay actually is.
Riddle says extra pay, defined by the district, is “anything that falls outside of an employee’s contract, including overtime, coaching, or clubs,” and that he was only implying that it is an extra pay that comes with the job. “Any kind of reimbursement can be considered a perk. It’s just the terminology.”
Extra pay entails extra work. “I did six weeks of summer school from 8-2 every day, and it was grueling. That’s not extra pay just because they think I’m nice or something,” says Strub.
Riddle also says that he does in fact explain in a previous article the reasoning behind one employee, Thomas Slater’s, extra pay. But just one explanation, separately published from the statistics, isn’t sufficient. In fact, it’s rather irresponsible. The Daily Post should have provided explanations for every teacher on the list if they truly cared about the public “knowing their employees.”
Presentation aside, teachers were mainly angered by inconsistencies in the salaries themselves. As a classified employee, college counselor Alice Kleeman says her salary is actually in the low $50,000’s, yet the article stated that her “total pay” was $75,192. She also says that while she does receive some extra pay, it all comes from the Foundation for the Future, not taxpayer money. In fact, Foundation director Cindy Folker says that this year over $900,000 was raised for M-A salaries. So actually, some salaries on the Post’s list were not funded by taxpayer money at all.
“I’m not comfortable with people making judgments or forming opinions based on erroneous information, as in my case,” says Kleeman.
The Daily Post has published previous articles displaying salaries of other government employees, and highlighted the Sequoia District last year. However, this year, the list was structured differently.
“The numbers came directly from the district and they cover the calendar year, which may be different because school employees are used to the [Fall to Summer] school year when they get their pay,” says Riddle.
Therefore, first year teachers, like Senigaglia, had only half of their salaries accounted for, and teachers that worked part time for one school year and full time for another, such as history teacher Ellen Jacobson, also had their salaries skewed in the article.
However, Riddle never mentioned the calendar difference in the article and he says that “perhaps he should have,” and that he was just trying to present the salaries more clearly to the reader.
“We analyze information, we put it in a digestible, readable form so that someone can read it and make their own decision,” he said.
That digestible, readable form consisted of copying and pasting the district’s financial excel sheet onto a newspaper. Thanks for the transformation, Riddle. There was little analysis of the teachers’ salaries, and overall, the article’s coverage was confusing, misleading, and incomplete.
Riddle remarks, “the article was written to cause people to think, and that is what good journalism does. Let them come to their own conclusions.”
Good journalism doesn’t present confusing and sensitive information in such a distorted way.
The Post’s portrayal of teachers’ salaries alludes to excess. By referring to extra pay as a “perk,” rather than compensation for an individual’s additional effort, they make it seem as though teachers do not deserve that extra sum. Presenting taxpayer money as the sole source of these “perks” hints that the Post wishes to incite in the public some sort of notion that teachers are overpaid.
Science teacher Jeff Decurtins says, “Personally, I think this whole thing is a joke. What possible relevance to any educational improvement is knowledge of a specific teacher’s salary? But even more relevant, our salaries are a joke. I used to work in high tech across the street at SRI. In walking across the street to M-A, my salary got cut in half and my hours doubled.”
Next time the Daily Post feels called upon to perform a public service, they should be sure to conduct their research more carefully. As high school journalists, we were hoping for a more competent example to follow. At the very least, they ought to apologize to the teachers they’ve wantonly offended.