We need context, not balance

Like many towns, West Hartford has a advertising supported, free weekly paper that’s mailed to everyone. The latest issue arrived today with this as the front page article:

Fire, police overtime nears $3 million in 2010

The Town of West Hartford paid nearly $3 million in overtime compensation in 2010 to police and fire department personnel, according to data released under a Freedom of Information request.

Town administrators this year combed through expenses, trimming nearly $1 million from the original proposed budget before approving a 2012-13 spending plan. But in trying to cut, administrators lack the power to control specific items, such as overtime paid to union employees.

You should go read the article.

Here’s what stood out to me: the next several paragraphs (easily the first third of the article) includes quotes by the Republican members of our town council (the minority party) and other claims that collective bargaining is to blame for the OT in 2010.

At first, I wondered why they didn’t include any quotes by the Mayor or from Democrats on the council. Then I realized that I actually didn’t really care about that. I don’t really care about balance in that sense.

What bugs me is that there’s no context given to these numbers or information. For example, the reporter names particular police officers and firefighters who earned a significant amount of overtime. The reporter writes about how the Republican members of the council want to go after the contracts negotiated with the unions. They give particular salary numbers out.

I read all of this and was left with… “and so what?” I don’t know if this is a matter of lazy reporting or tight deadlines and a need to print something or an assumption by the writer that readers are already super informed, but as a pretty regular watcher of town news, I was left with a bunch of questions. I needed context in order to put the numbers in perspective and to understand some of the claims made in the article (both by people quoted as well as the author).

Some questions I would love to see answered:

  • What is a typical yearly budget for overtime expenditure?
  • What is typical overtime budgeting for towns around the state with similar populations?
  • Why did the cited officers get so much overtime pay? How many hours did they work? What was the purpose of those hours?
  • What are some of these union rules that drive overtime costs? What union rules do the Republican members find objectionable?

That’s just a small list. These numbers sound big (“$3 million in OT!” – “That police officer doubled his salary!”) but given some context, they may not be crazy. For example, if the officer is working double shifts most days to make up for staffing shortages, that may be reasonable compensation. If he does it every year, maybe there’s a policy change required. How can we tell with the information provided?

I want better reporting from our papers. People might be willing to pay for them if they actually dug a little deeper than a blogger with SEO skills…