On December 23, 2012, The Journal News published an interactive map that revealed the addresses and names of every person with a pistol permit in Westchester County where the paper is based. Gun-permit ownership is public information that was gained easily by a simple Freedom of Information request, but just because it’s public information doesn’t mean that the public needs to know it.
As the popularity of data journalism skyrockets with the emergence of The Guardian’s Data Blog and other news organizations quickly following suit, journalists now have to ask themselves what the public actually needs to know, and what qualifies as an invasion of privacy. Letting the numbers, or in this case names and addresses, speak for themselves is an often risky thing to do, and it is the responsibility of the journalists to do so responsibly and with purpose.
The Journal News isn’t the first to use gun permit holder data in a story to reveal the locations of gun owners. In fact, many other publications have published similar stories in the past, but The Journal News is the first to unabashedly target gun owners by revealing the names and street addresses of all gun owners in a particular area simply to make the community more aware of its neighbors. This outraged many gun owners, and other journalists criticized the accuracy of the report.
The prevalence of computer-assisted reporting in today’s journalistic era makes it all the more easy to acquire, manipulate, and distribute this information to millions of people without having to think twice (Cochran). However, there is value in journalists’ access to this information in democratic terms. Public officials would be significantly more likely to get away with unfair property valuations if the public, particularly reporters, didn’t have access to that information.
This argument doesn’t always work, and often reporters must defend themselves as they act toward a public good- hurting only what is necessary to achieve a greater good. In order to achieve the public’s trust and act as a legitimate news source, Wendell Cochran has put forth 5 principles that reporters and news organizations should adhere to.
The first encourages journalists to continue to pursue private information, but while reassuring the public that their private information won’t be sought or revealed without sufficient cause. The second suggests that protections are enacted to prevent unnecessary dissemination of private data. The third principle suggests enacting policies that distinguish between data related to investigation targets from those of non-journalistic targets. The fourth guarantees that pieces of private information aren’t combined into pseudo virtual dossiers. The final principle outlines procedures to update private information once it’s been used (Cochran).
According to Cochran, it is important to not focus on increasing secrecy or preventing the access to these bits and pieces of private data- but instead reevaluate how journalists handle such information in their delivery of data to the public.
Another problem with data journalism that happens all to often is inaccuracies within the data. According to research conducted by Marcus Messner and Bruce Garrison, the most common forms of errors were incomplete data, non-standardized data, data entry errors, wrong codes, and misunderstood codes. How these errors in databases have affected the news have not been studied as of late, but most reporters and journalists are trained in how they evaluate data and present information as accurately as possible (Messner and Garrison). Irresponsible data reporters are an enormous liability for newspapers, and research on a topic such as this would prove valuable to all news organizations to avoid blunders such as what occurred at The Journal News.
For now, though, data journalism is not something to avoid just because it might get you into trouble. It is sometimes better to let the numbers speak for themselves rather than to write an elaborate expose on something that could better be explained in a data-driven motion graphic. With the extensive free technological resources available to produce data-driven content, publications such as The Guardian are producing compelling and accurate stories that have the potential to revolutionize how news content is produced and visualized.
What journalists need to consider as the news evolves to incorporate more mediums and methods of delivery is how they deliver their content and for what reasons. Was it necessary for The Journal News to divulge the names of permit holders? Probably not as it jeopardized the reputation of legal permit holders in a time of high dispute over the gun ownership- particularly as this story was cast in the light of the recent Sandy Hook Elementary shootings. Instead of targeting these individual permit holders as proponents of gun violence, this story could have better been told by anonymous numbers associated to particular neighborhoods. With the resources available and the pressure to remain current, reporters and news organizations must continue to adhere to their journalistic values and present the story in the most accurate way possible while still maintaining the mutual relationship and trust with their readership.
Messner, Marcus, and Bruce Garrison. “Journalism’s ‘Dirty Data’ Below Researchers’ Radar.”Newspaper Research Journal 28.4 (2007): 88-100. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.
Cochran, Wendell. “Computers, privacy, and journalists: A suggested code of information practices”. Journal of Mass Media Ethics 11:4 (1996):210-222. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.
Moos, Julie. “Newspaper published names, addresses of gun owners”. Poynter. 26 Dec. 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.
Worley, Dwight R. “The gun owner next door: What you don’t know about the weapons in your neighborhood”. The Journal News. 23 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.