Reporters and editors used to decide what was to be made public. No longer. More and more, the public decides what will be public … and that’s as it should be.
In today’s Times, David Carr concludes that he’s uncomfortable with a newspaper publishing a map of gun permit applicants. Yesterday on Twitter, Jim Willse, the best American newspaper editor I’ve ever worked with, got similarly sweaty.
@jwillse Public knowledge is public knowledge. You fault a paper for making it more public then?
— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) January 13, 2013
— Jim Willse (@jwillse) January 13, 2013
I, too, struggled with this matter. But in the end and with respect, I think my friends are asking the wrong question. It is not up to journalists to decide that gun permits are public information. It’s up to us as citizens to decide that, as a matter of law. If there is something wrong with that, then change the law. If society is not comfortable with making that information public, then don’t try to make it somewhat public, public-with-effort (like TV stations’ campaign commercial revenue). There’s no half-pregnant. In the net age, there’s no slightly public.
I hate to see a news organization being condemned for trafficking in public information. I would also hate to see journalists end up campaigning to make less information public. Journalists of all people should be fighting to make more information public. In Public Parts, I argue that government today is secret by default and transparent by force when it must become transparent by default and secret by necessity. There are necessary secrets regarding security, criminal investigation, and citizens’ privacy.
Should gun permits be private then? Isn’t that by extension what my journalist friends are really asking when they want them to be less public? I say no. There is a public interest in this information being available and accessible. It allows the public, journalists and neighbors included, to keep watch on the process of government issuing permits. It enables the public, news organizations and others, to correlate data about permits with data about crime and safety. At a personal level, it enables me as a parent to know whether the homes where my children go play have arms — and to be able to discuss with the parents there whether their weapons are safely secured. These are matters of public safety, of public interest.
Now Carr and Willse are arguing that there is a difference between that information being available and making it more available by printing it in a newspaper, on a map. “Publishing is a discrete act, separate from whether something is public or not,” Carr says. “Our job as journalists is to draw attention, to point at things, and what we choose to highlight is defined as news.” That is the old editorial gatekeeping function trying to assert itself. Online, that question is becoming moot as there’s no longer a scarcity of space to control, to edit. Publishing information for all to see in print is different from making information available for those who seek it in search or by links. If the news organization doesn’t make this information more widely available, someone else can and likely will. I’ll argue that the town itself should be doing that. (And I’ll argue with Carr about the idea that journalists define news another day.)
Haven’t we heard that data viz is all the rage? Don’t we know Google’s mission to make the world’s knowledge accessible to all? Shouldn’t that be part of journalism’s updated mission? I say that news organizations should become advocates for open information, demanding that government not only make more of it available but also put it in standard formats so it can be searched, visualized, analyzed, and distributed. What the value of that information is to society is not up to the gatekeepers — officials or journalists — to decide. It is up to the public.
Now where I will agree strongly with Carr is that it is also journalism’s job to add value to that information. “And then it is our job to create context, talk to sources who bring insight and provide analysis,” he says. It’s legitimate to ask whether the paper with the map added such and sufficient value. I think this will be our primary job description going forward: adding value to flows of information that can now exist without our mediation. We should add value in many ways: contributing context, explanation, caveats (how the information can be out of date or flawed), education (how to verify the information), in some cases editing (the value The Times and Guardian added to Wikileaks data was not just distribution but also redaction of necessary secrets), and especially and always reporting: Why do all these people own guns? How are they storing them? What are they teaching their children about them? Have they ever used them? Are they trained in using them? Oh, there are many questions and answers that won’t be in that flow of data. That’s where the need for journalism and its future lies.
Both Carr and Willse want to make moral judgments about data. “Should data have a conscience?” Carr asks. It’s our use of data that needs to be governed by conscience. This is a lesson danah boyd taught me for Public Parts when it comes to privacy and data: It’s not the gathering of data we should regulate — or the technology employed to gather it. It’s the use of data we need to regulate. It’s one matter to know that I’m a middle-aged geezer, another to use that information to deny me employment. I would hate to see society and especially journalists find themselves advocating the regulation of knowledge.
Our default as journalists should be that more information is good because it can lead to more knowledge. We no longer hold the keys to the gate to that information. We can help turn information into knowledge. But we can’t do that with less information.
Again, I sympathize with Carr’s and Willse’s discomfort. I shared it. But as I tested the limits of my views on publicness and its value, this is where I came out.