A “conversation” about press reponsibility

January 7, 2013

Media criticism, as writer Bill Wyman once noted, is “easy work; coming down after the battle, as the saying goes, and shooting the wounded.”

With that thought in mind, the Journal-News newspaper, a 68,000-circulation daily based in White Plains, N.Y., has come in for more than a typical level of incoming over the last few weeks. In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, it published the names and addresses of holders of handgun permits and posted an interactive map on its website that allowed readers to see where the permit-holders lived.

Like many other media organizations, the owners and staff of the Journal-News are hungry for page-views of their site and, in this case, they got their wish in spades – the map received more than 1 million views. But the newspaper also has been on the receiving end of fierce criticism from gun owners both within the circulation area of the Journal-News and elsewhere, who say that publishing the data has infringed on their rights and made them vulnerable to theft. We have even received phone calls here at the Observer-Reporter from concerned readers who believed this was part of a nationwide initiative by all newspapers.

Rest assured, that’s not the case. The decision to publish the information was made at one newspaper because its reporters and editors believed it was interesting or newsworthy. And while it’s deplorable that reporters and editors at the Journal-News have been subject to threats and harassment, we question the decision by the newspaper to publish the information.

Throughout its history, the Observer-Reporter has been an enthusiastic advocate for openness in government and sunshine laws that make documents and information readily available to citizens. As Louis Brandeis famously pointed out, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

But the decision by the Journal-News to publish the names of handgun-permit holders, and create its interactive map, has left us scratching our heads. First, a handgun wasn’t the weapon of choice in the Newtown massacre; it was a semi-automatic rifle. Publishing the names of those who have received permits to carry handguns doesn’t seem particularly relevant in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy. It would be like, in the aftermath of 9/11, publishing the names of pilots licensed to fly small aircraft.

Moreover, we can’t quite discern the point the Journal-News was trying to make. If they were trying to demonstrate permits have increased or decreased in one area or another, that’s fine. But why was it necessary to publish names and addresses with no accompanying context? As Steve Doig, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, told The New York Times, “This particular database ought to remain a public record. Just because it’s available and public record doesn’t mean we have to make it so readily available.”

One editor at the newspaper said publishing the names and addresses of handgun-permit holders has sparked “a conversation.” True enough. But, unfortunately, the “conversation” has been less about guns and more about press responsibility.



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