Ethics Corner: Pictures of Pain

By: Allan Wolper

Ethics Corner: Pictures of Pain

The Journal News has become a target of the gun lobby and of journalists in print, television, radio, and politics from the left and right for allegedly violating the privacy of people who have their gun permits on file in state offices in Westchester and Rockland County, N.Y. In other words, the paper got attacked simply doing what it is supposed to be doing: telling its readers what they need to know.

The upstate Gannett daily reprised a theme from the movie “Network,” in which a freaked-out television anchor asks his nationwide audience to rush to their window and shout that they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore.

The attacks on the paper were totally knee-jerk responses. Gun permits are public records. That means those records belong to the public. Posting them or shouting them out a window does not violate anyone’s privacy.

That is why it is difficult to understand why journalists who complained about the Journal News reporting on the gun registration records applauded the over-the-top coverage of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in rural Newtown, Conn., of 20 small children, six school officials, the mother of the shooter, and the shooter himself.

The media trucks that swamped the Sandy Hook area stole some of the most private moments from friends and relatives of the victims without worrying whether those pictures, posted online across the Internet, would haunt them forever.

The free press is supposed to call attention to this kind of local terrorism. But it is difficult to support that hard-edged version of journalism and defend the so-called privacy of public records that allow people such as Adam Lanza, 20, to shoot a classroom full of children, their teachers, his mother, Nancy, and finally take his own life.

The argument posed by the pro-gun privacy groups made no sense. The overwhelming majority of the gun permits are given out to peaceful people with no criminal records. But Adam Lanza had never been in trouble with the police, or with anyone else. The Journal News was doing its journalistic due diligence by notifying its readers that their neighbors may own a gun or two.

In fact, there were repeated stories in the local paper, The Newtown Bee, as well as the Journal News, about Newtown residents shooting off their guns near the homes of people with no arrests, according to published reports. That fact alone shows that the so-called sleepy village of Newtown is hardly the rural paradise the media makes it out to be. Newtown is also the headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for America’s gun manufacturers.

After Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Aurora, the Journal News had obviously had enough. It was time to reprise its 2006 story on gun owners in the area, telling its Westchester readership once again that its high-priced neighborhoods are full of registered handguns. And that is what the paper did, on Dec. 23.

The outcry against the Journal News’ use of public records to out the gun people was much louder, it seemed, than the raw pictures that the media showed of the families and friends of the victims. The paper, critics felt, should have asked the gun owners for permission to publish their names.

No one in the media asked Alissa and Robbie Parker if they wanted a picture taken of their private pain after being told their daughter Emilie, 6, was one of the children gunned down at Sandy Hook, but millions of people probably saw that photo.

Photographers didn’t tap Chris and Lynn McDonnell on their shoulder to ask if they cared whether the picture of them holding each other after learning their daughter, Grace, 7, was another victim of that massacre was posted anywhere. After all, that unbelievably painful photo was news, not an invasion of privacy.

There were no complaints from the loudmouth media about the dramatic photo of the line of children, hands on the shoulders or backpack of the child in front of them, being escorted across the parking lot by Sandy Hook teachers. And surely no one asked one little girl in that line, her mouth open and obviously hysterical, whether taking her picture was a violation of her privacy.

That’s a photo she will have to live with for the rest of her life, a photo by Shannon Hicks of the Newtown Bee that is now a front runner for the Pulitzer Prize.

The news media who set up their cameras directly across the street from the Sandy Hook Firehouse where parents, relatives, and friends had gathered to wait for news of their children, hoping against hope that they had not been one of the victims, didn’t seem to worry about invading the privacy of those people.

The media even went out to the home of one of the victims to snap a picture of an empty house, guarded by a state police car. All of this was considered news that had to be told, that had to be shared.

The photojournalists seemed determined to capture every single painful moment of the massacre. No one was immune to their intrusive lenses. Not even an unidentified woman, in tears, her head down, her hands barely holding herself together, as she stood next to a car in the school parking lot. She should know that breaking down in public made her a public figure.

The Journal News gave some ammunition to the Second Amendment soldiers by publishing incorrect or outdated information about who had legally registered guns and who didn’t. The paper apologized, but that didn’t stop the criticism. Soon afterward, bloggers posted the names and addresses of the paper’s editors and reporters.

I did like the idea of reporters having their telephone numbers out there. Newspaper readers have been complaining for years about the difficulty of getting journalists to pay attention to their gripes. This lack of connection is one reason that papers are losing so many readers. Publishing their home numbers probably produced a notebook full of new sources and might even lead to some terrific stories.

I am not saying that those reporters deserved to get the kind of hate calls and emails that traumatized their homes. But it sure said something about the kind of gun-toting people there are in America that the Journal News had to hire private guards to protect its staffers from those deranged callers.

And the National Rifle Association and its allies managed to insert an amendment to a gun control bill signed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that allows gun owners to remove their weapon registration from the public records. A loss for the First Amendment.

Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers-Newark University and host/producer of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a broadcast on WBGO 88.3, an NPR affiliate in the New York area.

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6 thoughts on “Ethics Corner: Pictures of Pain

  • March 7, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    Check your geography: Westchester and Rockland are FAR from being “upstate.” They’re right outside New York City. The outrage as I read it was over the Journal News’ blatant page-view play with no larger purpose. Releasing that information was akin to releasing the names of people who had drivers’ licenses — what was the point? The fact that the records are public is not in dispute. But releasing them did very little to advance an intelligent and civil conversation on an important topic, so we’re forced to assume traffic whoring was the real purpose. Disappointing but not surprising.

  • March 7, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    You’ve completed neglected THE major complaint most people had about the gun map, which was that it was a criminals’ godsend, acting as a veritable treasure map of homes for them to break into to steal guns. I’ve seen someone make the argument that a criminal could just follow a car with an NRA sticker back to its home and find a good prospect, but it seems like a lot of work to drive around looking for NRA stickers all day. Seems a lot easier to print off a map from the Journal News, complete with names and addresses, and stake out a couple houses, looking for a good opportunity to break in. This isn’t a matter of privacy, it’s a matter of public safety. If the Journal News wanted to make people aware of the amount of guns in their neighborhoods, they could have done that without disseminating identifying information that compromised the safety of individual gun owners and of the public at large. They deserved the criticism they received.

  • March 7, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Excellent commentary. One clarification, however. It was not the NRA that asked to have the county pistol permit databases in New York State removed from public view -it was a highly vocal Tea Party state Senator named Greg Ball, and some of his allies in the Legislature, and the move was approved by Governor Andrew Cuomo. However, the state Assembly insisted that the proposal be modified to allow many gun permit applicants to have their information kept secret, while keeping the database as a whole open to public scrutiny. I would also like to add that the reason journalists scrutinize government-issued licenses, tax assessments, voter registrations and other databases that contain information about citizens is not to make citizens uncomfortable, but to ensure that the government abides by the law and does not favor one citizen or group of citizens over others who may have less money and influence. Any increase in secrecy fosters corruption.

  • March 7, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    Of course it was legal to publish the gun owners’ names, but why do the newspaper’s readers need to know that information? Another factor is that publishing this information reveals an obvious bias on the newspaper’s part against gun ownership. It wasn’t “objective” news coverage despite claims to the contrary.

  • March 10, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Reporting what the people NEED to know might not mean publishing names and addresses of gun owner but names and addresses of gun sellers who don’t require the background checks and other steps mandated in their communities. Those who flaunt and/or break the law should be identified, regardless of what the Tea Party or the NRA finds offensive.

  • April 4, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    One of the readers says this map indicates places that guns can be stolen from, and that’s what outraged people. I actually was thinking of all the homes that ostensibly do NOT contain firearms. If I lived gun-less in Westchester I would feel like a sitting duck right now. Those who want to rob a house now know where they can go and do their thing without impunity. On the other hand – Manhattan which also had its gun map published, is apparently gun-free with the exception of 2 (two) homes. — Really? I agree with Elaine. Attention-whoring was the motivator here – shame on the journal, and also shame on the terrible invasion of privacy of the Newtown residents. There is no excuse for that. I have often wondered about the moral conscience of photo journalists. (And for the record, I hate guns.)


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