The Westchester, N.Y., newspaper that created a national stir in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre by publishing an interactive map showing where the owners of pistol permits lived, is suing a county government that has refused to give out information about who in the area has such a permit.
Posting of the interactive map opened the Journal News to some criticism from within journalism circles that by publishing raw data the paper ultimately had the effect of depriving the public of information.
The paper was also the target of retaliation by pro-gun bloggers who published the names and addresses of the reporters and editors responsible for the map.
The controversy epitomized the heightened sensitivities around a burgeoning gun culture in the US.
Publication of the map so upset gun owners over what they perceived to be a breach of privacy that the New York Legislature passed a law giving gun owners an option of keeping their addresses and identities secret from the public. About half of the 31,000 permit holders in the area have since requested that their information be sealed.
But after several attempts to get information that remains public, the Journal News on Thursday took Putnam County to court. Some have called the county officials’ refusal to hand over any permit-holder names an act of “standing up” for gun owners. County Clerk Dennis Sant has said state law gives him “discretion to deem whether information is going to put my citizens in harm’s way.”
The paper made similar requests of two other counties, which did hand over the permit information.
The paper, owned by Gannett, has continued to defend its actions, saying residents deserve to know where potentially dangerous weapons are located.
“The Journal News believes that Putnam County should turn over the records that the law clearly says belong to the public,” said Janet Hasson, the paper’s president and publisher, according to a Journal News report on the lawsuit. “The data is essential for our journalists to do their jobs. For example, we need to be able to investigate whether guns involved in crimes are legally or illegally owned.”
The suggestion that the paper would dig deeper into the data instead of simply publishing raw reports from the government suggests that editors and reporters there have heeded criticism that came from the journalism community after the controversy.
Publishing raw, potentially faulty, data in order to provide a snapshot picture failed to add appropriate context to what the information really meant, suggested Kathleen Bartzen Culver in an article for NPR earlier this year.
Journalists “need to champion access to information at every turn,” she wrote, noting that the newspaper’s actions led to a law that curtailed the amount of information available to the public. “And they need to treat that access for what it is, a powerful force that, if misused, can threaten the very access itself and thus the public’s right to know and govern.”
“Don’t just show us numbers, tell us what they mean, or we draw our own conclusions based on our own biases, which is dangerous,” added Al Tompkins, a gun owner and a journalistic ethics expert at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.