Are there guns in your neighbors’ homes?
What about the homes where your kids play?
It’s a point of curiosity in many cities and towns, and the massacre in Newtown has sparked fresh debates over the proliferation of weapons in seemingly quiet communities. But one New York newspaper’s decision to map the exact location of every pistol permit in its coverage area has created a firestorm of local controversy, including angry threats against newspaper employees.
In journalism circles, meanwhile, the publication is reviving discussions over whether there are limits to ethical publishing in the Internet age, when massive datasets – from public employee salaries to criminal convictions – can find permanent homes on the Web.
It all began last Sunday, with a story in the Journal News, a Gannett-owned newspaper covering Westchester and Rockland counties north of New York City. “The gun owner next door: What you don’t know about the weapons in your neighborhood” was the headline, and the story mostly focused on the paper’s effort to obtain pistol-permit data for the region, along with a discussion of whether such information should be public or private. In New York State (but not, since 1994, in Connecticut), the names and addresses of pistol-permit holders are public records by law.
It was a fairly routine article. But accompanying the story was an interactive Google map with dots identifying the location of each pistol permit in the counties. Zooming in and clicking on the dots revealed the name and street address of the pistol-permit holder – though possession of a permit does not necessarily mean an individual owns a firearm.
Fueled by social media, the response was immediate and overwhelmingly negative. Gun owners complained their privacy had been violated, and that the publication would make them targets for gun thieves. Some believed the paper was putting gun owners in the same category as sex offenders. One reader said publishing the map “is no different than Germans publishing the names of Jewish merchants and bankers back in 1933.” And by week’s end, blogger Robert Cox who runs “Talk of the Sound,” had published a Google map showing the home addresses, home telephone numbers and email addresses of 21 employees of the Journal News.
Janet Hasson, president and publisher of The Journal News Media Group, defended the map in a follow-up story. “New York residents have the right to own guns with a permit and they also have a right to access public information,” she was quoted as saying.
But the publication created unease among some data journalists. On an email listserv for computer-assisted reporting, several journalists wrote that the data, without further analysis, added no value to the story, and that the wholesale publication would likely generate legislative efforts to block public access to the data. One called the publication “data vomiting” and part of a trend toward publishing click-friendly datasets with little context.
Still, the map was click-friendly, generating tens if not hundreds of thousands of views, including some, presumably, from area residents who did find it valuable to identify the possible location of guns in their neighborhood.
Media outlets in the past have run lists of gun-permit owners, and – as in New York State – have faced backlash from angry gun owners, including tit-for-tat publication of the journalists’ residential information. This week, critics of the Journal News reacted gleefully to the dissemination of the journalists’ addresses and phone number, though one wondered if it would increase the likelihood that they would become victims of violence.
“I’m sure none of these people have guns or the ability to stop ‘bad’ people from doing bad things,” one wrote.
But that’s not entirely correct. The original Journal News story, written by staffer Dwight R. Worley, included this unusual editor’s note: “Journal News reporter Dwight R. Worley owns a Smith & Wesson 686 .357 Magnum and has had a residence permit in New York City for that weapon since February 2011.”