December 26, 2012

The Journal News honored victims of the Newtown, Conn., shooting on its front page Christmas Day with memorial candles that named the 26 students and staff killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. The paper chose a less lyrical approach last weekend, when — in response to the shooting — it published maps with the names and home addresses of people who had been issued pistol permits in Westchester County, where the Gannett paper is based, and nearby Rockland County.

Newtown, Conn., is about 43 miles northeast of Westchester County, N.Y., where The Journal News is based.

Readers were outraged, as were conservative commentators. Soon after the paper published the data, acquired through Freedom of Information requests, bloggers published what they believe to be the home addresses of Gannett CEO Gracia Martore, the paper’s publisher, its editor, and the story’s reporter.

That response seems entirely appropriate to Poynter senior faculty Al Tompkins, who said by email: “I hope any journalist who does this is willing to be accessible and responsive. If it is unfettered openness you want, you jolly well better set the example.”

This is not the first time The Journal News has published gun permit information; it says “a similar article in 2006 received similar responses.” And The Journal News is not the only news organization to publish gun permit information.

The paper is awaiting gun permit data from Putnam County.

WRAL, where I worked 10 years ago, published a permit database earlier this year with street-level data but no names. The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., published a similar database this time last year. In protest, groups responded by posting editors’ home addresses, Tompkins says. The Roanoke Times was an early publisher of this information in 2007, but redacted it, as did Philadelphia magazine, reports The Verge. Former Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record editor John Robinson notes that his paper published gun permits in the 1990s, before he was editor.

ABC News published a statement from The Journal News explaining its decision:

The Journal News said its readers “are understandably interested to know about guns in their neighborhoods,” because of the conversation about gun control on its website after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., last week.

In a story on the paper’s website, Publisher Janet Hasson said, “New York residents have the right to own guns with a permit and they also have a right to access public information.”

That does not justify publication, says Tompkins, especially given the potential for harm:

Just because information is public does not make it newsworthy. People own guns for a wide range of law-abiding reasons. If you are not breaking the law, there is no compelling reason to publish the data.

Publishing gun owners’ names makes them targets for theft or public ridicule. It is journalistic arrogance to abuse public record privilege, just as it is to air 911 calls for no reason or to publish the home addresses of police or judges without cause.

Unwarranted publishing of the names of permitted owners just encourages gun owners to skip the permitting.

Related: Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald apologizes for an editorial about gun control that said Sen. Kelly Ayotte “clearly cares more about being a rising star in the Republican Party than about seeing a 6-year-old shot in the face.”

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Julie Moos ( has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
Julie Moos

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