Public is public…except in journalism?

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.

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.

  • Jeff: The key issue here is not whether the information should be public or private, available to journalists or not. The key issue is what is created when a single record is accessed and discussed as opposed to the situation here where all records are accessed, organized and published via dead trees and online.

    There is a qualitative and substantial difference between the two situations. A story about Adam Lanza and his attempt to legally purchase a firearm via acquiring a permit is a valid use of very specific public information. But, accessing, organizing and publishing all firearm permits into an easy to access, convenient manner does not advance the story about how common or not common firearms ownership by neighborhood is. That story could have been advanced by publishing the map and then statistical data at the Zip, Zip+4, Census Tract or block group level. Correlation of this data with crime stats, public employee residential information, protective orders by location, all would have been a story about our society. The publishing of specific name and address information does not advance any knowledge, it just exposes these people to risk across a number of fronts.

    Given the actions of the paper (choice of a reporter outside the area, non-response to the impact of the story, etc.) it appears that this is part of the “Shut Up” movement. I see this situation as akin to the situation in California where supporters of Proposition 8 (banning Gay marriage) were outed and suffered financially, and some threatened.

    Given the two burglaries over this weekend, the threats made to police and prison guards, and the renewed harassment to a number of battered women, Gannett is going to owe hundreds of families relocation costs very soon. I figure that this story will cost Gannett between $50 and $100 million. That’s the damage that news organizations with a political agenda can do.

  • Jeff …

    With respect, I think you’re misstating what makes me itchy
    about the Journal News publishing the names and addresses. Of course the
    information should be public – that isn’t the question. If I want to find out if
    my neighbor or Donald Trump has a gun permit (he does), then I should be able
    to easily access that information. If a newspaper wants to help by pointing me
    in the right direction, so much the better.

    But a printed page, unlike the Internet, is a finite medium.
    It imposes the need for choices –
    should we publish A and not B, how can we cut the story to fit the space? Those
    choices should be based on reason, not reflex.

    Stated or not, the reason the paper printed the information
    was Newtown. Inclusion on the list therefore becomes guilt by association. It’s
    like printing a map of all the home swimming pools in town after one kid drowns
    in someone’s backyard.

    • David Talbot

      One angle here, somewhat lost in the uproar, is that even as the counties can hand out public gun permit data (and newspapers can print same), nobody can get data on the types of gun.

      The story narrative could have been: trends in weapons sales have rendered public record-keeping useless in some respects. While we can see who owns guns, we can’t see who owns the more frightening rapid-fire AR-15 and similar weapons and huge clips that 1: At one time may have been subject to some additional regulation or ban and 2: Were the common denominator in most (maybe all) of the recent episodes of random mass slaughter by psychotic individuals.

      One wonders: if this granular data was available, and a newspaper had printed a map several months ago that showed Adam Lanza’s mother had several semi-automatic weapons and a veritable ammo dump, is it possible Adam’s psychiatrist–or some other party familiar with Adam’s psychoses–might have seen that and done something (if only to ask the mother to better secure them)?

      Jim what do you think? Is there any map you’d print? What if you could show the change in ownership of these types of weapons over time — or if the map showed just the owners of weapons that had been subject to the assault weapons ban before it expired?

      • Jeff Jarvis

        Good points, David.
        Yes, I do wonder about whether the fact that Lanza’s mother had multiple weapons alone could have triggered some action knowing that her son had access to them.
        BTW, New York’s new law allows applicants now to hide their applications from public view because of the paper’s publication. Step backward, I say.

    • Jeff Jarvis

      But once it’s online, is it that much different being in print, really? Yes, we agree, they’re different. But the real difference besides the managed scarcity and thus the message conveyed by inclusion is that one, for now, makes the information more public one less public. But it’s still public. If it’s on the paper’s site, in the end, then, I don’t think it really is that different being in the paper. Indeed, as circ falls, online has greater audience so one could argue that that makes it more public.

  • The question here is not whether you *can* publish this stuff, no one (I hope) is arguing that, but whether you *should*.

    Put another way, it is a young actress’ right to go without underwear if she pleases, and if she gets out of a limo in a public space it’s a photographer’s right to photograph her and by extension it’s a publication’s right to publish said photo… but it’s still unseemly and unprofessional.

  • gvanderleun

    “Our default as journalists should be that more information is good because it can lead to more knowledge. ”

    Really? Okay then.

    Gracia C. Martore
    CEO of Gannett publisher of Journal News
    Annual compensation 2011: $4,693,809
    728 Springvale RD
    Great Falls, VA 22066

  • David Carr’s Times regularly prints classified information as a result of internal discussions about what is in the public interest. It is unclear whether or not the weight of risking the lives of domestic abuse victims and others is worth the public interest of publishing the entire documentation.

    Many journalists who went through the Wikileaks document dumps (or for that matter Palin’s emails as governor) seem to believe that contextualization is important. However, in the case of the Journal-News, not only did they not do that, but they obscured the real issue. Just like people who focus on the scary design and look of a Bushmaster rifle, knowing that numerous people have gun permits is irrelevant.

    If the interest is in getting people talking about gun control or the like, this is not the way to do it. It’s a slapdash attempt to gain publicity, which has been successful. However, news organizations should advance the conversation and not pander using publicly available information as a crutch for producing stories that inform.

  • johncunningham

    so, Jarvis, you are cool with women, who have gotten away from their stalkers, getting hangup phone calls all night? you support prisoners telling guards the guards’ home address? you like burglars striking houses where they know there are guns? good to know…how about someone putting up your home address, home phone, vehicle license numbers? does that work for you?

    • John, the information was public anyway. If a stalker wanted to search the gun permit database they could do so, quite easily.

      • DJ: If I remember correctly, someone requesting information under FOIA has to disclose the reason for the request. If the stalker lied about the reason for requesting the information, he/she would have committed perjury and can be prosecuted. That’s something a DA would love to do – no downside and makes great copy for their next election.

        • Jeff Jarvis


        • Disclosing the purpose of the FOIA request was made specific within the new New York State “gun control” law. If it was a stretch before, it’s not much of a stretch now.

    • John N.

      I agree with all of your points except the one about burglars striking homes where they know there are guns. One of the major arguments that the gun lobby presents in favor of gun ownership is for “home defense.” If you believe the presence of a gun makes a home more of a target, then that argument fails.

    • Jeff Jarvis

      I’m cool with society making appropriate laws and an exception for women who get guns because they are under threat that comes from the law is fine. My point here is that what’s public is public and making it less public by not publishing it is not really what we should be discussing. I’ll turn it back to you: What are you comfortable being public and not public in the law?

  • John N.

    I come to the question as someone who is in favor of gun control but who is also very concerned about privacy.

    The point you make about the electorate making a decision whether or not this information _should_ be public is a valid one, but, like so much information in the internet age, the horse is out of the barn at this point. The question that should have been asked before the publication of this information is whether there is a newsworthy point to be made by making this particular aggregation of information public. If so, that point should have been made in the article with the gun registry data supporting it, rather than creating something more sensationalist.

    There are ways the information could have been presented that protect personal privacy, and they could have even included directions for individual citizens to file their own FOIA requests if they want more information, without providing identifying information in the article.

    Far too many of our information collection and disclosure practices are based on pre-Internet (and “big data” analytics) thinking and have yet to catch up to the current reality.

    Even if I believe we have far too many guns in this country, that it’s far too easy to get them and that the ones available are too powerful, I do not believe that this type of data aggregation _should_ have been published because the publication of the data at this level of detail did not serve any purpose that would not have been served by a more anonymized, aggregate level presentation.

    • John: The goal was NOT to advance the story and intelligent conversation. Rather, the purpose was to identify all gun owners as deviants and get them to SHUT UP.

      • Swami_Binkinanda

        Aren’t some gun owners coming out of the woodwork to identify themselves as borderline personalities at best? Gun ownership isn’t a gender; however it is looking more and more like a nihilistic sort of religion for cowering sorts of people. As the Daily Show pointed out the other night Mike Moore could not make a better case for gun control than the NRA has been making by targeting the president’s daughters, encouraging conspiracy enthusiasts and continuing to push the notion that every new mass shooting could be stopped if just Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis were there at the mall armed to the teeth.

        If it wasn’t a warning of where in your town the potential kooks live it sure seems to be going that way. Speaking as a responsible gun owner I don’t think the people purporting to represent gun ownership are making a case against increased regulation, they are making the case for licensing and psychiatric examination and ammunition controls.

        • “Gun ownership isn’t a gender; however it is looking more and more like a nihilistic sort of religion for cowering sorts of people.”

          Wow, I’m not sure how to respond to that amazingly gross generalization. Publishing the data was not the action of ANY gun owner, “borderline personality,” or responsible citizen.

          The problem with today’s discussion on gun control is a substitute for the real problem, mentally ill individuals loose and killing people. If we were serious about removing the guns that are used in the overwhelming number of murders, we would be talking about restricting the ownership of handguns, not “military style assault weapons.” Not to worry, the mentally ill have an existing lobby in place – the ACLU.

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  • Neil Dark

    I don’t want my kids playing at homes with guns. Guns in homes are more likely
    To be used on the home’s occupants than any bad guy.

    • Interesting belief.

      Here’s my suggestion. We simply pass a law that any household that is armed put a sign out front saying “Armed and Dangerous” (apologies to ESR). And any household that has no weapons should be required to put a sign out front that says. “No guns here.”

      I suspect we’d have lots of Darwin award winners the year that one passed.

      In short, Neil, you’ve been listening to propaganda. And propagating it. Try again.

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  • Antonis

    The problem that you will get is exactly what you pointed out in your article. “t’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 dont think that society (nor goverment) has learned how they should use open data in a constructive way still, which makes it still slightly dangerous

    • The problem is that people (both gov’t and non) want to use open (or secret, if they can get it) data to protect themselves. Which may or may not be constructive. But will almost certainly be discriminating. That may, or may not, be a bad thing. For instance, I seriously doubt the CIA or MI6–or any other intelligence agency–will ever hire Julian Assange, despite his talent for gathering secure information.

  • SocraticGadfly

    So, if there’s no need for journalistic decision-making, there’s no need for professors of journalism, right? QUIT!

  • SocraticGadfly

    Let’s also note the hypocrisy of a professor at a taxpayer-funded state university who thinks private journalism companies should make everything free. (That doesn’t count the denseness of misunderstanding Stewart Brand and the whole “libre” vs “gratis” issue on “free.”)

    • Jeff Jarvis

      No, I don’t say that. In some cases, however, the marketplace and the reality of competition does.

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  • Barry Wilson

    LA Times and NY Times published teacher evaluations for thousands of teachers that were based on voodoo science called “Value Added Measurement”– It’s one thing to publish something that is factual, but quite another to publish something that is likely to be inaccurate and defaming.

  • There is a lot to say about gun rites, but that’s not the issue in this article. Just because something is public, does that mean that we should really be pointing it out. Is it really for the greater good? Look at the downsides of pushing this into the public view. Gun rites and the 2nd amendment are volatile issues. Gun owners are protected by their guns, but most of them don’t want to have to use it, it’s like having a spare tire. You have it just in case, but hope you never have to use it. Pointing our their addresses just makes them a potential target for violence. Guns are also very valuable. Not just because of their actual cost, but because buying one leaves a paper trail if bought at retail and is highly regulated. Having a map of where you can go to get one without going through that can lead to attempts at theft. In another comment I saw that someone said this goes against why people say they want guns (to protect themselves and their stuff) and while that is not entirely true (protection against tyranny is another), it is partially true. However gun owners are not always home and while the guns in their homes are likely secured, no security is 100% and those guns could still be stolen. Additionally, if they are home at the time of an attempted robbery, someone could die in the attempt, either the gun owner or the thief Publishing these addresses makes this a greater possibility.

    • I don’t know. Let’s just say I’d rather be outed as a gun owner than a gun hater. Thieves and suchlike don’t have to worry at ALL about unarmed homes.

      • You have a point about stolen guns, but I assure you I don’t collect huge numbers of guns. If I’m not home, my (2) guns aren’t either. And if I’m home…. Well, take your chances.

        • Oh, and thieves are rational beings. They aren’t going to drop in to die. They are greedy, not insane.

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  • Hi Jeff, have you read Evan Selinger’s arguments that effectively says ‘public’ is not a binary condition. He talks about the existence of obscurity. I’d explain it this way. If I walk down the street I don’t want to do so wearing a mask. I don’t mind if my face shows up in the background of somebody else’s picture, or even if its picked up by government surveillance security cameras. What I will mind is if these pictures are put online and searchable by facial recognition, by location and time.

    See this article By Selinger

  • Craig

    The logic of your argument seems to be that 1) in the current environment, someone is going to publish the information, so why not this newspaper? Isn’t that basically the rationalization of prostitution and tabloids? Someone’s going to provide the service, so why not me?
    2) You want the data out there, but you don’t want someone using that data in a way you don’t like…denying you employment was your example. You say it’s not the gathering of data we should regulate, but rather the use of it. Doesn’t that bring us to the question of who-at what level-is going to regulate the data? Won’t there be a greater attempt to regulate data at a higher level in an attempt to make information less transparent?

    3) I agree with you that with today’s technology and environment we have let the genie out of the bottle. The days where journalists could be trusted with sensitive information for the good of the nation and the safety of military personnel in harm’s way have disappeared. I also suspect that there will unfortunately be a future Sandy Hook type of event as a result of sensitive data being released, resulting in an assault on the first amendment similar to the current one on the second.

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  • Kristine Schultz

    I agree, more information should be made public. People can decide to read articles or not and if they’re are uncomfortable with knowing who has a gun or not they shouldn’t have looked into it. I think that this article is also trying to scare people during this whole gun debate. Having people see their neighbors that own guns could change their opinion out of fear.

  • Katie Nelson

    I’m a bit confused about the point you are making here. I agree with you in that it is the journalist’s job to add value to information, but you say that “It’s one matter to know that I’m a middle-aged geezer, another to use that information to deny me employment.” But in the same breath, you say that we can’t make moral judgements about data and should instead regulate the use of data. How is a journalist supposed to regulate data once it is released to the public? As a journalist, I’ve always understood that our job is to present the data and allow the public to do with it as it will. To use your example, we can provide the knowledge that you are a “middle-aged geezer,” but how can we be expected to regulate whether an employer uses that information to deny you employment?

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