Posts about guns

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.

NRA arms Santa’s elves

WASHINGTON, D.C., December 24, 2012 — National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre today announced that the NRA had trained a cadre of armed elves to ride with Santa Claus on his trip around the world tonight.

“The only thing that stops a naughty guy with a gun is a nice guy with a gun,” Mr. LaPierre said during a hastily called press conference, held in apparent response to the firestorm over his proposal to place armed guards in every American school. “Let this be a lesson to principals and politicians in this country: Santa Claus is setting an example not only by arming his sleigh but also by having the courage to create the only international data base of naughty people.”

In addition to carrying a bag of gifts for children around the world, Mr. Claus’ elves will pack heat: namely Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, each equipped with high-capacity magazines and more than a thousand rounds of hollow-point ammunition. Mr. Claus himself is reportedly carrying a Smith & Weston 9mm semiautomatic pistol under his beard should he be met with resistance leaving his sleigh and entering chimneys and living rooms. His spokeswoman, Mrs. Claus, also confirmed that to accomodate the extra load of armed guards and weaponry, North Pole Corp. added a tenth reindeer to its sleigh, named Blitzkrieg.

“As America’s preeminent trainer of law enforcement and security personnel for the past 50 years, the National Rifle Association is ready, willing and uniquely qualified to help win the war on Christmas,” Mr. LaPierre said. “We did it for the nation’s defense industries and military installations during World War II, and we’ll do it for Santa Claus today. Our culture — that is, our evil Hollywood media — have done Mr. Claus a disservice by portraying him as merely jolly and nice in movies, cartoons, and now videogames. That is an invitation to every insane killer that his journey would be their safest opportunity to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk. Well, let me tell you: His elves may look small and they may spend the rest of the year making toys, but tonight, they’re prepared for the worst.”

Mr. LaPierre continued: “Think about it. We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards. American airports, office buildings, power plants, courthouses, even sports stadiums are all protected by armed security. We care about the President, so we protect him with armed Secret Service agents. Yet when it comes to the most beloved, innocent and vulnerable character in our culture, we leave him utterly defenseless, and the monsters and predators of this world know it and will exploit it. That must change now! Now Santa Claus is armed, thanks to the NRA. We believe in Santa Claus. And Santa Claus believes in the NRA!”

Mr. LaPierre also announced that as part of the NRA’s new North Pole alliance, Santa Claus agreed to place realistic toy guns under every Christmas tree around the world. “We are proud to take part in training the next generation of shooters,” Mr. LaPierre said.

At his press conference, Mr. LaPierre refused to take questions from the press. Unanswered were questions regarding what will befall the well-armed Mr. Claus when he travels to most civilized countries in the world, which, unlike the United States, have laws regulating the possession of guns and ammunition. This could lead to the prospect of Mr. Claus being arrested and jailed as he and Christmas come to Australia, Japan, and other nations with strict and successful gun controls. “let the death of xmas lie on the conscience of #guncontrolnuts,” said one NRA supporter on Twitter in a discussion following the announcements.

Also in the discussion on Twitter, CNN host Piers Morgan criticized Mr. Claus for his new stand in favor of guns and against gun control and invited him to appear on his prime-time show. “Come on, America,” Mr. Morgan tweeted. “Ban Santa Claus and enforce background checks on his elves. Do it now.” This led to further calls to deport Mr. Morgan, to which one Briton tweeted in response: “Nobody in Britain wants Piers Morgan to be deported. We’d much rather he was strangled in his bed by Santa.”

* Sadly, the LaPierre quotes are adapted from his own speech.

* Earlier: FTC fines Santa Claus.