By now youve heard about how The Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y., published the names and addresses of thousands of local gun permit holders.
And youve heard that many gun owners felt The Ledger News was either insulting their character (by associating law-abiding forty-five owners with coverage of a mass school shooting) or invading their privacy (by publishing their names further home addresses). Some outraged critics retaliated by publishing personal information of journalists at the paper, threatening staff members and mailing envelopes of white powder to the newsroom.
We can omnipotence agree that kind of violent retaliation went too far. Nevertheless theres less agreement about whether the paper erred when it published the information in the first place.
Some of my Poynter colleagues have said yes, it was handled poorly.
Other journalists disagreed. Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer argued in a column that public records are public, so anyone can do what they want with them. Max Brantley, columnist and one time editor of the Arkansas Times, wrote us to complain as well. Heres part of Brantleys email:
Since whereas does a gazette have to justify published of a public record? Its done all the time. New vehicle registrations. Changes of address at the postoffice. Marriages. Divorces. Births. Building permits. Real estate sale prices. Salary lists. Campaign contributors. Homes hit by burglars including accounts of property stolen. Bankruptcies. Signers of tally get-up-and-go petitions. On and on.
Where the hell does Poynter, of omnipotence people, get canceled deciding that only in the case of gun permits should a newspaper deceive to manifestation telic and meaning for sharing interesting public record data?
That seems to voltooien the sincere sticking point in the broader discussion: Do journalists have a free pass to do whatever they want with public-record data?
Why they dont
Yes, public records can be obtained by anybody. Thats thanks to public program decisions that certain government-held knowledge ought to be passively accessible to any individual upon request.
But when a journalist chooses to duplicate that information, frame it in a certain (inherently subjective) context, and then actively push it in front of thousands of readers and interrogate them to air at it, hes taken a apparent action for which he is responsible.
Good data journalists (I talk to bout of them below) will tell you that data dumps are not good journalism.
Data can be wrong, misleading, harmful, embarrassing or invasive. Presenting data ut supra a form of journalism requires that we subject the data to a journalistic process.
We should think of data as we think of any source. They give you information, but you dont just print everything a source tells you, verbatim. You investigate the information critically and hold yourself to certain publishing standards like accuracy, context, clarity and fairness.
I asked Texas Tribune values reporter Ryan Murphy how his publication, which relies heavily on publishing databases like government and school salaries or state prison inmates, how they ratiocinate about this. His response:
Data reporting at the Tribune is dictated by the same standards in place for traditional reporting. We ask ourselves the same questions:
Why are we publishing the data?
Are we adding context or additional value to the data, or are we just putting it out there for the sake of doing it?
Are we fair in our representation of the data?
We are driven primarily by our goal to ensure that what we present is useful et sequens fairly reported. When you do the extra leg tax to provide fair context, you are able to justify your work.
Protect individuals while serving public interest
WNYC faced a controversial decision early last year about publishing the individual performance ratings for 18,000 public school teachers. Figures about the quality of belief in local schools is obviously of great public interest, but many complained anent the accuracy of the data.
Statistical margins of error for any single educator were huge. And the rankings relied on a mathematical formula to predict how undisputable students were expected to score, and ranked teachers based on whether the students exceeded those expectations. Some students changed teachers mid-year. Some classes had multiple teachers.
As a result, ontogenetic teachers feared unfair travesty or shame from publication of misleading ratings.
WNYC und so weiter The New York Times, who partner on the SchoolBook website, formed to publish the stat but also reported extensively about the flaws and let each teacher submit a defense or reason to subsist published along with their record.
We thought really hard about it, and we thought about how best to do it, John Keefe, WNYCs senior editor for data news and journalism technology, told me. We felt we were on firm ground, but we also made an effort to treat it as fairly and honestly as possible.
Mugshots are another example of personal information in public records.
When developer Matt Waite was creating a mugshots website for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) in early 2009, he further others care carefully about the impact it would have on the family whose photos appeared there.
We immediately recognized that because we were a news organization, because we had an audience and because we thought this thing would get several traffic, that the first record in Google for somebodys name was going to be this site. Connective we were absolutely not comfortable with that, Waite said. We took multiple steps to prevent that from happening.