A leading journalism think tank has come down on The Journal News of Hudson Valley, New York, for publishing the addresses of gun permit holders without cause.
Roy Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism think tank, told the Associated Press that the online map pinpointing gun owners’ homes was comparable to a sex-offender registry. “You get the connotation that somehow there’s something essentially wrong with this behavior,” he said. “My predisposition is to support the journalism; I want to be persuaded that this story or this practice has some higher social purpose, but I can’t find it.”
Today Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at Poynter and 35-year veteran journalist, panned the Westchester paper for 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,” Tompkins wrote in his Al’s Morning Meeting blog.
“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,” he wrote. “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,” he continued. “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.”
Tompkins noted that even though he’s not a big fan of sex offender maps, “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.”
“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,” he said.
In summarizing what journalistic purpose if any publishing the gun owners’ names served, Tompkins wrote, “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,” he said. “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.”
The Journal News, Tompkins wrote, “is taking heat for starting a gunfight just because it could.”
Tompkins contacted one of the reporters of the story for comment on how they reached the conclusion that the story was appropriate, but was just given the stock statement from publisher Janet Hasson.
“Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular,” Hasson said. “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,” Tompkins responded, and journalists “should weigh the public’s right to know against the potential harm publishing could cause” when disclosing private information.
The president of the National Rifle Association decried the paper for singling out lawful firearms permit holders, but for letting criminals know which households are unarmed.
“Most guns that are used illegally in this country are either bought on the black market or they are stolen. So if you’re a criminal looking for a gun, you’ve just been given a map to where you can find some,” David Keene said today on CNN.
“Secondly on the other side, it also tells you who isn’t armed. And therefore, if you’re not seeking a gun, but you’re seeking television sets and the like through burglary, you know where to go.”