By: Kristina Ackermann
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.