December 27, 2012

In the days since The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News published and mapped the names and addresses of local citizens who hold gun permits, outraged critics have published the names and addresses of journalists at the paper. New York State Senator Greg Ball has also responded by announcing plans to propose legislation that would make the permits private, no longer subject to open records laws. I suspected that legislative backlash might follow, and it would be a worse mistake than publishing the data.

The problem is not that the Gannett-owned Journal News was too aggressive. The problem is that the paper was not aggressive enough in its reporting to justify invading the privacy of people who legally own handguns in two counties it serves.

When I asked reporter Randi Weiner, who wrote a story about the criticism, how the news organization reached its decision to publish the information, she sent Poynter a statement from Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson:

Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular. One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular. We knew publication of the database (as well as the accompanying article providing context) would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.

Timeliness is not reason enough to publish this information, though there are important reasons — including public safety — that journalists regularly invade people’s privacy.

Journalists broadcast and publish criminal records, drunk driving records, arrest records, professional licenses, inspection records and all sorts of private information. But when we publish private information we should weigh the public’s right to know against the potential harm publishing could cause.

My former colleague Bob Steele used to compare the journalist’s role in this situation to a doctor who had to decide whether to perform surgery, knowing she would have to cut through healthy tissue to get to a tumor. The damage caused to the skin is outweighed by the good that comes from removing the tumor. But, as Steele used to say, the surgeon uses great care and years of training to cause only the damage that is justifiable — and no more.

Journalistic invasions of privacy ought to produce outstanding insights into an issue or problem, as The Washington Post did in “The Hidden Life of Guns.” The package included reporting about the NRA’s influence over politicians and “time to crime” ATF data showing how guns from one store move quickly to the streets to be used in crimes. That story links specific stores to a huge number of crimes. Yes, name the stores, and find out why they are so popular among criminals.

WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., stirred up a hornet’s nest by investigating concealed-carry permits. The station went well beyond the controversial database to examine the questionable claims that concealed weapons alone lower crime.

Those are the kinds of stories that make public records data vitally important, the kind of stories that opportunistic lawmakers and anti-media pundits would have a harder time attacking.

Alternatives The Journal News could have considered

Here are some stories any newsroom could explore as part of publishing some version of a gun permit database.

If journalists could show flaws in the gun permitting system, that would be newsworthy. Or, for example, if gun owners were exempted from permits because of political connections, then journalists could better justify the privacy invasion.

If the data showed the relationship between the number of permits issued and the crime rates, that serves a public purpose. You would have to also look at income, population density, housing patterns, policing policies and more to really understand what is going on and why.

If a news org compared permit owners with a database of felony offenders in local counties, that could be a public service. Years ago I recall a Minneapolis TV station doing this and they found the state issuing hunting licenses to felons.

But none of those stories would require the journalist to name the names and include the home addresses of every permit holder. The mapping might be done by ZIP code or even by street.

I am not a big fan of the maps that show sex offenders, but at least there is a logical reason for posting them, even though the offenders often no longer live where the maps show them to be. And even when they do, how much risk do they pose? The maps can’t know that. The difference between the sex offender maps and the gun permit maps is that sex offenders have been convicted of a crime. The permit holders are accused of nothing.


A few readers contacted me to say the database is the kind of thing parents can use to learn whether their kids are safe at a friend’s house. I disagree. I am a gun owner. When my kids were growing up my pistol was locked in a safe at a friend’s house on the other side of town. A permit map would have shown it at my house.

The Journal News database does not show shotguns, rifles, even the much discussed “assault weapons.” The data could give a parent a false sense of security. It might be more useful to ask the parents of your child’s friends about guns in the house, rather than rely on a database that may not provide a clear picture.

The Journal News says it was flooded with criticism that publishing the maps makes the permit owners targets for thieves. I understand the concern but am not sure I buy it. I wonder if the homes without permits are bigger targets, there may be no guns there to fight back. In any case, I have seen nothing yet that leads me to believe publishing such data results in a higher incidence of burglaries. As my colleague Julie Moos pointed out in an earlier article, several other news organizations have published similar but less specific lists over the years.

One argument for publishing the database might go something like this, “We are not implying anything by publishing this data. We are not vilifying anybody. It is a public record. The public is smart enough to figure that out. Trust the public to make good decisions if we supply them with information.” I accept that argument if the data has some context. Don’t just show us numbers, tell us what they mean, or we draw our own conclusions based on our own biases, which is dangerous.

What’s the journalistic purpose?

If publishing the data because it is public and the public seems to be interested in the topic right now is reason enough, then there are endless databases to exploit.

If your county required dog and cat licenses would you publish that interactive map? I suspect the licenses would be public. I sure would like to know if there were three dogs living behind me before I moved in.

I have seen news organizations publish the salaries of local and state government employees for no reason other than that they can. Why? Did we think they all worked for free? If somebody is playing the system, expose them. But use the surgeon’s tools, not a chainsaw approach.

I like it when journalists take heat for an explosive, necessary, courageous investigation that exposes important wrongdoing. There is journalistic purpose and careful decision-making supporting those stories. But The News Journal is taking heat for starting a gunfight just because it could.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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