Holding the Data at Gunpoint

As the U.S. federal government and news media focus on the continued “fiscal cliff” discussions, the upcoming debt ceiling crisis, and major cabinet nomination hearings, gun control is not going away from the national conversation. In fact, things might just be heating up, as Vice President Joseph Biden recently sat down with NRA members to discuss possible gun control measures while President Barack Obama continues to urge the Congress to act on his official recommendations, made just last week.

What continues to be interesting in the wake of the Newtown shootings is not just the sustained effort being exerted in discussing guns in American culture, but also how they are being discussed. A handful of articles were released over late December 2012 and early January 2013 that harnessed the Internet’s capabilities to display and share information about gun ownership in America. They received ample backlash that stemmed not only from their discussion of a contentious issue, but also from their perceived intrusion on the privacy of gun owners. As this Poynter article discusses, these articles were examples of a new future of journalism where data can be used to elucidate arguments and cast new light on issues, but the journalists writing them did not necessarily handle the data they chose to work with in a fully ethical manner.

The Journal, a newspaper in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties in New York, published a Google map of those counties with all the names and addresses for pistol permit holders marked. After the article went up on December 22, The Journal received so many threats they hired armed guards for protection. New York’s legislatures, lead by Governor Andrew Cuomo, subsequently passed new control legislation that, among other things, prohibits publishing information about legal gun owners. The Journal was forced to take down their map, not bowing to public pressure but to the new law.

Before The Journal’s Google map, The New York Times’ Jo Craven McGinty and Gawker’s John Cook filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the names and addresses of all New York City gun permit holders. The reporters ultimately felt compelled to sue the New York Police Department as they were not receiving the full set of information from the department. While the Times has not released the information from their request, Gawker decided to release a list of all gun owners in the City on January 8th of this year.

Free speech issues are mixing heavily with our evolving understanding of privacy in the digital age here. In the instance of the conversations about Newtown, we’ve seen the First Amendment interact strongly with the Second Amendment like no other recent time in American history. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a staunch supporter of greater gun control, said, “Well, it is public information. The public owns that data. On the other hand, I’m not so sure I think we should go publish everybody’s tax return.”

As journalists become more technologically adept and more data-smart, we should expect to see more pieces such as the The Journal’s and Gawker’s released. Hopefully this will help further expand the discussion on important issues the public faces without compromising the security and privacy of citizens. We can only also hope that the journalists involved won’t find themselves needing armed guards after hitting “publish.”

In both of these cases, the reporters in question used an official channel by way of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information that is, or was, by law in New York, part of the public record. And, let’s be clear here: there is a lot of information on every individual in America that is lawfully public. Someone can walk down to a courthouse, a police station, or a library to look up marriages, deaths, births, and non-juvenile criminal records. Gun ownership and licensing is only one specific kind of information that, depending on the state, is available to the public. But there is a different feel in the way the data were presented in each of these cases. In a sense, the reporters at The Journal and Gawker made already public data more public. So why was there so much shock and consternation over these two stories?

The answer may lie in the methods of journalism used, and not in the underlying issue discussed – though gun control’s contentiousness in American politics definitely played a role in the backlash. This is the new age of journalism, where data can make the argument. The data may have been previously available to all, but the difference now is in the new media method of presentation – featuring interactivity for readers – and the potential of virility of the story. The information is no longer ensconced in a court house in any particular location, where a person would need to physically access that information and work with it to make it sensible and useful, but once it is embedded in an article online, it is housed everywhere and available anywhere.

There is much good that can come from using data in reporting this way. Certainly part of the initial reaction to these stories was due to the shock of seeing just how many gun permits there are in both New York City and the surrounding counties. Using public data in order to examine social issues or to provide analysis of potential solutions is a powerful new tool for journalists in the digital age. While journalists have certainly always used data – and have made proliferate use of FOIA requests over the years – the kind of large scale data gathering and analysis that was found in these articles is only the beginning of a brilliant new era in journalism where huge data sets built off of public records can be transformed into powerful arguments.

The opportunities to uncover new facts and patterns are immense, and journalists should take advantage of them. Analysis of government or citizen proposals can be more readily tested against actual trends and statistics, and problems can be brought to light by enterprising investigative reporters willing to shift through available data. Yet, as more journalists learn to work with the massive amounts of data that are part of the public record – available with or without a FOIA request – they must keep aware that those data points represent people, and those people deserve to be treated fairly.

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