Guns, maps and data that disturb



Should data have a conscience?

As a journalist, I am trained as an absolutist in matters of open data. Public records should be just that, public, and as agents of transparency, news media outlets should help cast sunlight on those records. In that context, data is not good or bad, right or wrong; it is information that should be there for the asking, taking or publishing.

That was my initial reflex after The Journal News in Westchester County, N.Y., decided, in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, to publish a map with the names and addresses of people who had applied for handgun permits in two suburban counties. I followed a simple logic: the records were open, the public interest was high and journalism that blends both those things makes sense.

But on reflection, was it really journalism? Not so much. The accompanying article was about whether gun permits should be public, but the newspaper seemed to have all but decided that debate by publishing the map. More problematic was the closeness in time to the Newtown massacre, which served to cast suspicion and guilt in tendentious ways. By dropping the records into the maelstrom of a mass shooting, was The Journal News merely putting data-driven link bait out there?

Publishing is a discrete act, separate from whether something is public or not. Our job as journalists is to draw attention, to point at things, and what we choose to highlight is defined as news. And then it is our job to create context, talk to sources who bring insight and provide analysis. Given that, simply pointing out that something is public as the sole reason for republishing it is not a sufficient justification.



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