Guns, the Press & Privacy: Who Draws the Line?


In the 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart writes of a near-future world where everyone totes a mobile device called an “äppärät,” a blinking, buzzing gadget that facilitates not only communication and commerce, but also personal data sharing.

Your attractiveness, creditworthiness and even mental state are instantly rated and broadcast to the world. No filter, no privacy, no big deal.

Shteyngart's dystopian vision is a super-sad satire of our Internet-obsessed, information-saturated culture—made all the creepier because it does indeed feel like it could be true.

But not quite yet.

It turns out that privacy still matters, so much so that we over-correct when we feel it's been violated.

After a fierce backlash over what was generally considered an invasion of privacy, The Journal News of White Plains, NY, has removed from its website the names and addresses of registered handgun owners who live in the surrounding area.

The newspaper had legally obtained the information through a Freedom of Information request and posted the interactive map because, according to a statement to ABC News, people “are understandably interested to know about guns in their neighborhoods” in the wake of the Newtown, CT shootings.

More than 2,000 outraged commenters blasted the project, including some who retaliated by posting the names and addresses of the newspaper staff.

Bill Keller of the New York Times, Al Tompkins of Poynter, and other professional journalists critiqued the paper for not giving more context or justification for its seemingly invasive map, and suggested what they considered worthier ways to report on the vital issue of gun control.

I'm a former newspaper reporter and editor, a staunch defender of public information access, and even I found it jarring to see names and addresses dropped on a map like little targets with nametags.

Put simply, the Journal News impersonated an untrained, unreflective data dumper, the kind I warn my digital-native journalism students about when I ask them, “Just because you can, does that mean you should?”

But as troubling as I found the Journal News' actions to be, I was even more concerned by what followed.

On January 15, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a gun-control measure that includes a “Journal News clause,” which now protects the names and addresses of handgun permit holders from public disclosure.

The Journal News' decision to pull the names and addresses came three days after the bill was signed.

Publisher Janet Hasson said in an emailed statement, “While the new law does not require us to remove the data, we believe that doing so complies with its spirit.”

The newspaper did the responsible thing by removing the identifying information from its map.

But this clause should not have been the reason.

In fact, it should never have been part of an otherwise admirable piece of gun-control legislation.

We need to trust newsgatherers to make ethical, responsible decisions about how to handle information. They might abuse that trust at times, as the Journal News map illustrates, but the answer is not to snatch away that trust via a blanket denial of access.

Especially when the disclosure of handgun permit holders might actually lend itself to impactful journalism.

Nearly a week before the new law was signed, another New York newspaper requested gun permit information for its own region.

But unlike The Journal News, The Buffalo News said it had no plans to publish a database of names and addresses.

In an article on its website, the newspaper stated that it is “seeking this information just as it has data of voter registration, criminal records, municipal salaries, property assessments, political contributions and tax rates. When reporting on a gun-related crime, for example, The News could check gun permits to determine if an individual has a legal handgun.”

Because of the new law, The Buffalo News likely won't get what it's asking for.

So yes, privacy certainly still matters—enough that when one professional media company steps over the line, a government feels justified in pulling public information out of view.

And people don't seem to mind.

The Journal News has garnered much more outrage than the “Journal News clause.”

It should be the reverse.

We blast the newspaper for posting (what was) public information, when we should be training the same attention on the social media companies to whom we freely serve up all our intimate details, or the government agencies we allow to monitor our activities.

As Keller writes in his excellent Op-Ed, “when it comes to privacy, we are all hypocrites. We howl when a newspaper publishes public records about personal behavior. At the same time, we are acquiescing in a much more sweeping erosion of our privacy — government surveillance, corporate data-mining, political microtargeting, hacker invasions — with no comparable outpouring of protest.

“As a society we have no coherent view of what information is worth defending and how to defend it.”

Any sort of information-sharing that is done without purpose, thought or justification for the public good should be held up to scrutiny—whether it comes from a newspaper, a blog, a social media conglomerate or yourself.

But pulling public information away from the light just eradicates the opportunity to do this work. One entity abused the power, so the power is taken away.

When The Journal News published its map last month, I thought of Shteyngart. Now, I'm thinking more of Orwell.

Alexa Capeloto is Assistant Professor of Journalism at John Jay College and former Enterprise Editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune. A regular contributor to TCR, she served as a judge in the 2012-2013 John Jay/HF Guggenheim Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting. She welcomes comments from readers.

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