Gun owner map ricochet: Blogger publishes journalists' personal data

A newspaper published names and addresses of thousands of legal handgun owners, generating widespread criticism. In retaliation, a blogger mapped the names and addresses of the journalists.

Hand guns that were turned in by their owners in a trash bin at a gun buyback held by the Los Angeles Police Department. People can anonymously trade in their guns, no questions asked, for $200 grocery store gift cards for automatic weapons and $100 gift cards for shotguns, handguns and rifles.

The flap over the newspaper that published information about handgun owners in two New York counties has ricocheted back toward the news organization.

Thousands of critics – including some journalism professionals – have weighed in. And at least one blogger has retaliated by publishing the names and addresses of editors and executives at the Journal News, the publication headquartered in White Plains, N.Y., north of New York City and part of the Gannett organization.

Still, the Journal News is not backing down. Editors say they’ll publish information on handgun owners in a third county (Putnam) once county officials have responded to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that resulted in tens of thousands of names and addresses in Westchester and Rockland Counties.

The controversy began over the weekend when the Journal News ran a story on some 44,000 registered handgun owners in the two counties, including names and addresses showing exactly where those gun owners live using Google Maps. “The gun owner next door: What you don't know about the weapons in your neighborhood,” read the headline.

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre that killed 20 first-graders and six school employees, quickly followed by a raging debate over gun control and Second Amendment rights, it’s not surprising that journalists would look for fresh and provocative angles to cover the story.

David Gregory, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” has taken flak for showing an ammunition magazine in his interview with National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre last Sunday. Such large-capacity magazines are banned in the District of Columbia, where the show was taped.

The online magazine Slate has partnered with the anonymous creator of the Twitter feed @GunDeaths to craft what it calls “an interactive, crowdsourced tally of the toll firearms have taken since Dec. 14” – the day when 20-year-old Adam Lanza, armed with an assault-style rifle, two handguns, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in large-capacity magazines, forced his way into the Sandy Hook grade school in Newtown.

The Slate map details 206 gunshot deaths in the United States since Sandy Hook, including 21 teens and children.

But publishing the names and addresses of legitimate handgun owners is seen as very different from tallying gun deaths or discussing aspects of weaponry. (The Journal News report does not include “long guns” – shotguns and rifles, including assault-style rifles – which do not require licenses.)

Syracuse University journalism professor Hubert Brown told CBS News, “Mapping-based journalism is a big trend right now, but we have to be very very careful about the types of information that we are going to publish here.”

“In this case I think that the newspaper has gone a little bit too far in terms of publishing information that actually stigmatizes people,” he said. "I think it's a bit disingenuous of the Journal News to say that they are just giving information out here. They were taking a position on guns.”

Of some 20,000 registered handgun owners in Rockland County, CBS also reported, 8,000 of them are active duty or retired police officers who may now feel vulnerable to criminals they’ve sent to prison looking for revenge and just a mouse-click away from knowing the officers’ home addresses.

Some observers have likened the map of legal gun owners to public data on registered sex offenders.

“The problem is not that the Gannett-owned Journal News was too aggressive,” wrote Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., which teaches journalism practices and ethics in newsrooms, classrooms, and online. “The problem is that the paper was not aggressive enough in its reporting to justify invading the privacy of people who legally own handguns in two counties it serves.”

Among the most outspoken critics of the Journal News’s controversial gun map project is lawyer and author Charles Fountain, who blogs at “For What It’s Worth.”

This week, he published the names, addresses and other contact information for the newspaper's publisher, editor, and other staff members connected with the news story and map. (In an “Editor’s note,” the newspaper already had acknowledged that reporter Dwight R. Worley, who wrote the story, “owns a Smith & Wesson 686 .357 Magnum and has had a residence permit in New York City for that weapon since February 2011.”)

"Somehow, [The Journal News was] conflating legal gun owners with some crazed, tormented devil up in Newtown and putting the two together, and I was offended by that and I wondered how they'd like it if their addresses were published,” Mr. Fountain said on CNN.

“I’ve received e-mails from abused women who were under protective order and in hiding, and they’re terribly afraid that now their names and addresses are all over the Internet and accessible through that map,” he added.

So far, the newspaper is sticking by its journalistic guns. 

“Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular,” Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson said in a statement. “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.”

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