Monday, January 7, 2013

Journalism run amok

It's really no wonder why journalism is viewed so negatively by the public.

Twenty-four percent of people surveyed in a recent Gallup Poll rate journalists high in standards of honesty and ethics. That puts us right between bankers and business executives, but higher than lawyers, politicians and car salespeople. (Nurses rank at the top of the list. Congress is next to last at 10 percent.)

When a newspaper in New York State publishes the name and address of every gun owner in its readership, complete with an interactive map, it only serves to bolster the low opinion people have of our profession. It was stupid and, perhaps more to the point, served absolutely no purpose.

What did the newspaper hope to accomplish with this story? I can't come up with a reasonable answer, and I'm hardly alone.

“The Journal News, I personally think, should have rethought the idea as actually going so far to identify actual addresses,” said Steve Doig, a professor with an expertise in data journalism at Arizona State. “This particular database ought to remain a public record. Just because it’s available and public record doesn’t mean we have to make it so readily available.”

I have long understood that one reason journalists are viewed so negatively is that people who ply a trade that somewhat resembles journalism  -- entertainment reporters, political commentators, etc. -- are considered journalists by many in the general public, and this pulls our numbers down. That rationale doesn't work here, since the people behind the gun story are from the Journal News, a very mainstream local newspaper based in White Plains, New York. Presumably, the newspaper's publisher, editor and reporters are well trained and follow some sort of code of ethics. I have searched its web site and find no code of ethics published, which is too bad. I believe every newspaper should publish code of conduct so readers can hold the journalists accountable. 

This is unfair, but I suspect the Journal News' managers would like to re-think its decision at this point. The editor's explanation is weak:

“We knew publication of the database would be controversial but we felt sharing as much information as we could about gun ownership in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings,” said CynDee Royle, Editor and Vice President/News.

“People are concerned about who owns guns and how many of them there are in their neighborhoods. Our Freedom of Information request also sought specifics on how many and what types of weapons people owned. That portion of the request was denied.”

Now, a story indicating how many guns are owned in the newspaper's market, including the types, etc., has real relevance. Revealing who the gun owners are, including addresses, has no journalistic value I can think of.

I agree with one of the people who called the Journal News to complain about the story and map. As reported in the Journal News:
Scott F. Williams, 41, of Haddon Heights, N.J., near Philadelphia, who served in the Marines as a rifleman, was one of a very few callers who agreed to identify themselves and comment on why they called.
“This is what I see,” he said. “It’s all in the context of the shootings in Newtown ... it gets us all talking about gun control. That people are at a heightened concern makes sense to me. I am a gun owner and a pro-Second-Amendment (person). I try to be rational.”
He called the newspaper’s decision to link to the database “highly Orwellian. The implications are mind-boggling,” he said. “It’s as if gun owners are sex offenders (and) to own a handgun risks exposure as if one is a sex offender. It’s, in my mind, crazy.”

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