The Journal News stepped into a visceral thicket of American beliefs when an article on gun ownership by Dwight R. Worley, published on December 23, included a map of people who have pistol permits. The article had the ominous headline: “The gun owner next door: What you don’t know about the weapons in your neighborhood.”
The internet lit up after the gun permit maps went viral. In what is either a classic confrontation that pits freedom of the press against the right to keep and bear arms or the irresponsible use of public data, the Worley article explores a number of issues related to gun ownership, many from a local perspective. An editorial note tops the original article that states: “Journal News reporter Dwight R. Worley owns a Smith & Wesson 686 .357 Magnum and has had a residence permit in New York City for that weapon since February 2011.”
The Rockland Times summarized the act as: First Amendment protects local publication’s war against second amendment.
The maps published by The Journal News give certain detailed information about people with gun permits, including names and where they live. The dots on the map represents an individual permit holder licensed to own a pistol or revolver. According to LoHud, blue dots on the map signify active “permit holders that have purchased a firearm or updated the information on a permit in the past five years,” while purple dots mean an historical permit holder with no activity in the past five years.
The shooting of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. by young Adam Lanza, who used a Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle, itself a modified civilian version of the military’s M-16, has created a whole new nationwide conversation about regulating gun ownership.
The Journal News, which powers the online LoHud and is owned by Gannet Co. Inc., used that discussion to gather public gun permit data, which it then used to create an interactive map. The publication of citizens’ data, data that is technically public when FOILED (Freedom of Information Act), has caused a media ethical dilemma and is viewed by many organizations as bordering on violating law-abiding gun owners’ right to privacy. According to the article, NY penal law regarding information on pistol-license applications reads: “the name and address of any person to whom an application for any license has been granted shall be a public record.”
The article states that Rockland County provided the names and addresses for its 16,998 permit holders, with 3,907 current permits, but could not provide information on the types of permits issued. The highest per capita of Rockland gun owners reside in Stony Point.
It was not entirely clear how the publication of pistol permit information by LoHud would benefit the public in any significant or enduring way.
In a Thursday, December 27 editorial, Rockland Times Editor Dylan Skriloff raised his hand to whack the entire LoHud process, and called the participants in the article an “editorial hit-squad,” labeling LoHud‘s tactics an effort to “criminalize ordinary, law-abiding gun owners in the area.” Skriloff said the Rockland County Times “shares in the community’s frustration with the tactics of the Journal News, particularly the seeming attempt to draw a moral link between law abiding gun owners and the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.”
Skriloff poured through the hundreds of comments on LoHud’s website and other sites, and stated that “literally no comments in support of the article could be found.”
Skriloff quotes Legislator and Rockland County Executive Ed Day: “This action is mind boggling and indefensible. . . . Focusing on and publishing the names and addresses of citizens who are law abiding, have no criminal record, withstood an investigation, and had a judge authorize their authority to possess a handgun defies logic on many levels. All that has been accomplished is that there is now a ready ‘burglar’s menu’ available for criminals to more easily add to the number of illegal guns on the street.”
In a bit of goose and gander, the Rockland Times published personal information, phone numbers and street addresses, of those editors involved in producing the controversial material, including Gannet CEO Gracia Martore, The Journal News Media Group Publisher and President Janet Hasson, Executive Editor and Vice President News Cynthia Lambert (aka CynDee Royale), and Rockland Editor Caryn McBride, along with visual editor Robert Rodriguez, who made the map. Information on the writer of the article, Dwight Worley, was also spread online through other sources.
Janet Hasson said in a statement that “frequently, the work of journalists is not popular. One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular. We knew publication of the database (as well as the accompanying article providing context) would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.”
Al Tomkins, a senior faculty member at Poynter, the journalistic teaching institution affiliated with the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, appeared to agree with Skriloff, and said of the LoHud action:
“I hope any journalist who does this is willing to be accessible and responsive. If it is unfettered openness you want, you jolly well better set the example.” In his statement, Tomkins said it was “journalistic arrogance to abuse public record priviledge, just as it is to air 911 calls for no reason or to publish the home addresses of police or judges without cause. . . . Just because information is public does not make it newsworthy. People own guns for a wide range of law-abiding reasons. If you are not breaking the law, there is no compelling reason to publish the data.”