Journal News Pistol-Whipped After Google Gun-Map Fiasco

 @christopherzarac.zara@ibtimes.com
on December 27 2012 4:21 PM

The fallout continued on Thursday following the Journal News’ decision to publish an interactive map containing the names and addresses of pistol-permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties.

The Google map, which remains intact despite an outpouring of vocal opposition, has inflamed gun owners and non-owners alike, with many pundits on the left and the right saying the database simply goes too far. The information was obtained legally through a Freedom of Information Law request to the county clerks’ offices, but consensus across the social Internet seems to be that the move is the online equivalent of a liquor store wall of shame -- equating mere gun ownership with criminality.

Complaints are coming in from within journalism circles as well, with some news professionals supportive of the paper’s intent but disapproving of its method.

“It comes down to minimizing harm,” Katy Culver, associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, told IBTimes in a phone interview. “I would love to know what the conversations were like in the editorial offices when they were weighing the possible harm this could cause. In this case, I don’t think the benefits outweigh the risks.”

Culver conceded, however, that information on gun-permit holders is definitely a matter of public interest -- despite attempts by critics to paint the Journal News a liberal-media bully pushing an anti-Second Amendment agenda. “Gun laws are a huge debate right now, and who owns which guns is definitely part of that conversation,” she said. “But there was a better way to slice that information, maybe without including all the names and addresses.”   

Culver’s view was echoed by Poynter’s Al Tompkins, who wrote in a blog post Thursday that the Journal News has not been aggressive enough in justifying its actions. Indeed, the paper -- and its parent company, Gannett (NYSE: GCI) -- has been curiously mum since the map exploded across Facebook and Twitter earlier this week. Janet Hasson, publisher of the Journal News, released a single statement about the paper’s role in reporting “publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular.” But staffers are clearly being kept on lockdown, especially the Journal News’ editor, CynDee Royle, who is still being assailed on Twitter and has taken down her Facebook profile.

As IBTimes reported on Wednesday, Chris Fountain, a Connecticut-based blogger, turned the tables on the Journal News by publishing the names, addresses and phone numbers of the paper’s editorial staff. Fountain appeared on CNN Thursday stating that he just wanted to “show those particular reporters and the publisher what it feels like.”

If and when the outing war dies down, skeptics may ultimately view the Journal News’ map as a ploy for Web traffic during what is traditionally the slowest news week of the year. Culver added that, while the gun-permit database might have been overkill, the responsibility of journalists to make public information accessible cannot be diminished by a single lapse in judgment. The devil, as always, is in the details.    

“I can still see the justification for doing something like this in some circumstances -- maybe a map of restaurants with health-code violations,” she said. “If I’m eating at a restaurant with rats, I want to know about it.”

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