by David Mendez
In the wake of Sandy Hook and the national discussion on gun laws, White Plains, New York newspaper The Journal-News, has posted an interactive map on their website, featuring the names and addresses of every licensed gun owner in three counties.
The map is a companion to an article entitled "The gun owner next door: What you don't know about the weapons in your neighborhood," an article with a fear-inducing title meant to raise discussion about how much we should know about our gun-owning neighbors.
The gun owner information was obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, as gun licenses are considered to be on the public record in New York.
Obviously, their move attracted a fair amount of negative attention, as noted by a New York Times blog post:
The map thrust the paper directly into the heated national debate over guns that has followed the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., further churning the already frothy argument between those seeking curbs on certain types of weapons and those advocating gun rights.
“Now everyone knows where the LEGAL GUNS are kept, a valuable piece of information for criminals,” wrote an irate Facebook commenter who gave his name as Mike Pandolfo. “Why don’t you do something helpful, like trying to find out where the ILLEGAL GUNS are kept? That would be helpful to the noncriminal population.”
The comment was characteristic of the reaction of many of the thousands that had been attached to the article as it flew around social networking and news organizations’ sites, seemingly shared more in outrage than in support.
As part of that outrage, writer/blogger/real-estate agent Christopher Fountain took the Journal-News, and its owners at Gannett, to task by posting the home addresses and contact information on his blog in an effort to allow people to contact the reporters, editors and publisher themselves.
This spurs a huge debate about journalistic ethics now—the Poynter Institute is just one of many outlets that have questioned the move:
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.
The question is, was the damage caused by the Journal-News justifiable? Was there even a tumor to extract here? If anything, it seems like they've caused damage, as a New York state senator is interested in closing up those records in New York State—which raises concern as to whether or not similar moves may take place across the country.