On December 22, 2012 a Westchester County, New York newspaper, The Journal News, published a scalable, interactive map of area pistol owners complete with names and addresses. The information had been acquired from public records under the Freedom of Information Act.

Response to the newspaper’s actions was swift. One reader commented, “This is the single most irresponsible and dangerous piece of ‘journalism’ I have ever seen.” Another referenced personal attacks on the staff, saying using guns against liberals would be “like shooting fish in a barrel.” To that end, The New York Times reported that the newspaper had gone so far as to hire armed guards to protect its headquarters and a satellite office.

There are a number of ethical concerns here. As Kathleen Bartzen Culver, associate director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics points out, in publishing the data in the way that it did (with scalable maps, names and addresses of pistol owners), it effectively facilitated gun thefts and crimes against those without a means to defend themselves. Moreover, the published map did not include ownership of shotguns, rifles or assault-type weapons, which do not require permits in Westchester County.

Culver rightly suggests that The News Journal should have considered using the data in three more effective ways:

  • “Compare permit data to burglary reports and uncover whether and how legal weapons slip into illegal use;
  • analyze crime data against permits to examine how often legal weapons are used in self-defense and when that use is lethal; and
  • examine patterns in permit data, such as clusters within neighborhoods, unlawful permits to felons or permits in homes with a domestic violence conviction or restraining order.”

In what ways were the decisions made by the newspaper’s staff morally defective?

Update (February 26, 2013): Here’s a terrific follow-up piece from PBS’s MediaShift on how newsrooms should use data.

Source: PBS MediaShift


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