Tension around issues of gun ownership, gun-control legislation and other firearms-related topics has been at a fever pitch ever since the recent mass shooting of elementary-school children in Connecticut — but one small-town newspaper in New York state touched off a particularly harsh firestorm of criticism by printing the addresses of registered gun owners, laid out on a Google map. Was this useful information published as a community service and a tribute to the recently deceased victims at Sandy Hook? Or was it an attempt to libel legal gun owners by making their behavior seem reprehensible?
The answer depends on you ask, but it raises a question that is becoming more and more relevant in this era of “big data”: namely, just because certain kinds of information are publicly available and can be filtered and aggregated in various ways, does that mean we are always justified in publishing them? It also raises a question we have written about before in a different context: Does publishing things in a newspaper give them more weight than just making the same information available online?
The paper that published the gun-ownership information is the Journal News, a Gannett-owned publication that covers the region around New York City. Editors submitted freedom-of-information requests for the names and addresses of registered gun owners in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties — information that is public by state law — and then plotted those addresses on a Google map.
Was there a larger issue at stake? The paper says yes
The Journal News feature pointed out that each dot on the map only represented someone who had applied for and received a permit to own a handgun, and didn’t mean they actually had one. It also noted that the information only covered pistols or revolvers, and not rifles, shotguns or the type of assault rifle that was used in the Sandy Hook school shooting — all of which can be bought without a permit. And the newspaper wrote a long story about why it published the data: in part, because it believes that such information should be more available to the public, so that residents know who in their neighborhood owns guns, as well as how many and what kind.
Within hours of being published, the story and map were circulated through Facebook and Twitter — the map has been recommended on Facebook almost 40,000 times — and were loudly criticized by conservative news outlets such as Instapundit and Fox News. Some readers protested that publishing the data in such a way opened owners up to theft or intimidation: one said that the article was designed to “sensationalize the anti-gun frenzy” and another argued that by publishing their addresses, the paper had equated them with “sex offenders and murderers,” since those are the other kinds of public information that are usually mapped by newspapers.
In retaliation for the perceived injustice of publishing gun-owners’ addresses, at least one blogger — a lawyer, real-estate agent and author — published the addresses of journalists and executives at the Journal News, including the paper’s publisher and the editor, as well as the reporter who wrote the story accompanying the map. In addition to their addresses, he also published links to their public Facebook profiles and photos, saying journalists should be prepared to have their own personal information become public if they are going to do so to others.
Should the media have its own Hippocratic oath?
There was almost as much debate among media-industry insiders about the wisdom of publishing this data as there was outside the industry. New York Times editor Patrick Laforge and Guardian writer Heidi Moore, for example, went back and forth on Twitter for some time about the propriety of publishing such a map — with Moore arguing that it served no real journalistic purpose, since there was no larger point to the data: in other words, no larger issue was being raised, none of the owners were interviewed, and the data was not used to make any kind of broader point about gun ownership.
Poynter Institute faculty member Al Tompkins also argued that the newspaper handled the information in the wrong way, saying the publication of the gun owners’ addresses would have been appropriate if it was related to an investigative series on gun violence or a story with substantial public benefit — but since it wasn’t, he said the paper had not justified its invasion of people’s privacy. In effect, Tompkins argued that journalists should be bound by something like the physician’s oath, which states “First, do no harm.”
But does the simple act of mapping gun permits qualify as harm? And how can publicizing that be an invasion of privacy, if the data itself is legally considered public? Those are just a couple of questions the Journal News piece raises. The first seems to have as much to do with the perceived power of the newspaper as it does anything else — just as the publication of a photo by the New York Post (of a man about to be hit by a subway train) was seen as reprehensible in part because of the way it publicized that event.
The second question goes to the heart of the “open government” or “open data” movement: there are reams of information contained in theoretically public databases that many people might still consider private, whether it’s school information or voting records — in the same way that information on Facebook or other social networks may technically be public, but is also seen by many as private (as illustrated by a recent incident involving Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook’s co-founder and CEO). At what point are we justified in making that data fully public? The answers to those questions are far from clear.