Before I dive too far into this editorial, let’s just agree to call a spade a spade: The Journal News’ online map of every gun permit issued in New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties — complete with permit holders’ names and addresses — was a wildly successful attempt at boosting pageviews. Numerous other points are up for debate, and I’ll get to those in a minute, but I hope we can all recognize that while the rest of us engage in privacy vs. freedom of speech holy wars, the Journal News executives are patting themselves on the back.

[UPDATE: the map has since been taken down from the Journal News' website.]

Now, on to the nitty-gritty.

Yes, it’s true that the information in the database is public record, and the paper has a constitutionally protected freedom to publish such information. But a newspaper isn’t dismissed of responsible behavior with a mere wave of a FOIA request. The fact is, those public records can be extraordinarily difficult to obtain, particularly for average citizens with no media affiliation. Newspapers themselves regularly engage in (and frequently lose) costly lawsuits to secure access to so-called public information. If the records listed were really as public as the Journal News has made them out to be, this wouldn’t be much of a story.

What the Journal News did was secure those difficult-to-obtain public records and publish them in a comprehensive, easily navigated format that it knew would become the latest online viral sensation. Unlike viral gif blogs or YouTube videos, this particular Internet tome contained the home addresses of private citizens who had committed no crime.

The ability to publish personal details about law-abiding citizens carries great responsibility, whether or not the Constitution explicitly says so, and in this instance the Journal News acted irresponsibly and betrayed the trust of its readership at a time when readers truly need a trusted voice. There are a number of ways the same data could have been presented cumulatively, without outing individual community members in their own home. This approach also would have presented a more neutral, unbiased stance on the issue of gun control. As it stands, there is no question as to how the paper’s publisher and editors feel about stricter gun control laws.

And the paper’s reaction to the blowback hasn’t exactly earned back the public trust. When a conservative blogger posted a similar map containing the home addresses of all Journal News employees (which they probably should have seen coming), the paper deployed armed guards to protect its offices and the homes of its senior executives, all the while dodging questions and declining to comment to anyone but The New York Times.

Given the current national sentiment over gun control and violence, the Journal News should have found a more sensitive way to share this data, a way that showed respect for all members of its community and promoted ideas and discussion on both sides of the argument. This is one situation where public data should not necessarily become widely available to the public.

Comments

Big Irony

Cliff Bieberly | Monday, February 18, 2013

One might suppose that, if one builds the title of a post around a quote from an Abbott and Costello routine, that irony and sarcasm might be anticipated, but I guess not. At least not in the case of the somewhat anonymous “newspaperman@ hotmail.com.” So, to further confound and confuse the ironically challenged, here’s a lyric from a Marty Robbins song to ponder: “No one dared to ask his business, no one dared to make a slip. The stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip.” I just think it is interesting that we can find constitutional amendments to defend foolish behavior. Kudos for that Dickensian "Pecksniff" usage, BTW.

Amazing

newspaperman@Hotmail.com | Friday, February 15, 2013

Timothy Murray writes: "If it's in a computer somewhere, just assume it is available to everyone."
That would be true if the information in those computers were voluntarily offered by those in the database. It isn't. Those gun-owners are required by law to surrender personal information as condition of having a permit.
You could argue that no one requires them to apply for a permit, and so they are volunteering it. And I would argue that the gov't has no business requiring such permits for the law-abiding, and if you really think that way we'll be happy to publish all your personal income tax data as well as your DMV information online, along with your address and phone number.
Writes Cliff Bieberly: "After all, if it is a LAW that made it possible for the whole world to know where the guns are, couldn't this be an argument AGAINST laws requiring gun registration."
This idea is so stupid it can be safely ignored. The writer is right. Everyone knows exactly what the liberal Pecksniffs at that newspaper think about gun control.
In other words, Mr. Bieberly, don't be silly.
Mr. Brodell: "Frankly, I would like to know who is packing in my neighborhood." Frankly, it's none of your business.

Right and Wrong

Roy E Bode | Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Journal News deserves recognition for producing the sleaziest digital stunt masquerading as journalism yet.
What made the whole episode particularly reprehensible was the deliberate confusion of legitimate news and obvious editorial opinion, the clear absence of any thoughtful deliberation prior to publication, and the outlandish hypocrisy of its perpetrators. As Ms. Ackermann noted, the company’s executives immediately turned to hired guns for protection the average person could not readily afford and refused questions from all but select media outlets. When their reporters call on those in future controversies, they should expect and accept the same kind of responsiveness they provided when their newspaper was scrutinized. In a lifetime as a reporter, editor of a major metro paper and newspaper owner, I’ve come to believe that readers should require the same kind of accountability and standards from journalists as from others in positions of trust.
What separates journalism from the unfiltered internet is responsible editing. For example, if News Journal editors believed providing gun permits endangers other law-abiding New Yorkers, why didn’t they assign a story – and a graphic – showing how many legally permitted guns were used in violent crimes in their neighborhood over the past couple of years? That’s journalism.
The possibilities of why they didn’t include those of laziness, inexperience, incompetence, or worse yet – the facts might not have been sufficiently sensational or didn’t fit their thesis. Unless someone finds this newspaper’s lost sense of shame, it will probably nominate its lightweight internet trick for the most distinguished awards of our profession this spring.
If jurors wish to uphold the distinction of their prizes, they will send this unmistakable message: Journalism requires more than just collecting information. It demands responsible and thoughtful decisions with the constant awareness that doing something because you can is often different than doing it because it is right.

Who's on First and Who's on Second...I Don't Know!

Cliff Bieberly | Friday, February 8, 2013

Maybe the geniuses at the Journal News really are "patting themselves on the back," as your editorial suggests. I don't know. You make the point that "there is NO question as to how the paper’s publisher and editors feel about stricter gun control laws" but it isn't that obvious to me. After all, if it is a LAW that made it possible for the whole world to know where the guns are, couldn't this be an argument AGAINST laws requiring gun registration. Rights and responsibilities aren't always the same thing, but dumb is always dumb. "I see your dad owns a gun, where does he keep it?"

They were within their rights

Skip Mendler | Friday, February 8, 2013

I also do not believe that the JOURNAL-NEWS did anything wrong or irresponsible, and I think that the blowback you mention says volumes about the mindset of some (not all) members of the gun-owning community. E&P should be supporting the JOURNAL-NEWS, not condemning it.

Public records are public

Jay Brodell | Friday, February 8, 2013

So public records are good as long as no one is unhappy? How about real estate tax records? Or the guy arrested for fondling a kid?
Frankly, I would like to know who is packing in my neighborhood. After the big Mafia bust in Apalachin, reporters found out that some of the capos had local pistol permits. Maybe someone should have checked sooner.
The whole concept of journalism is that the public consists of adults who should have the information they need to oversee government. So has there been any real damage associated with the publication of the gun owner map? Is there anyone on the map who should not have a gun?
It scares me when a publication like E&P says that some public info is just too hot to publish.
Jay Brodell
editor
A.M. Costa Rica

That is nonsense

Timothy Murray | Friday, February 8, 2013

What is wrong with posting this database? What notion of privacy do people expect? If it's in a computer somewhere, just assume it is available to everyone. And what on earth is wrong with journalism that takes as it's mission protecting and informing the local area about dangerous hazards in their community.
Professional journalists like E&P have a really strange notion of privacy and neutrality, that bear no resemblance to reality or the expectation of advertisers or readers. (and that is why we have fewer of both)

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