Secrecy is trumping public interest in gun control coverage

Our impoverished national conversation on guns appears to have a new casualty: public information.

The latest victim is the Bangor Daily News in Bangor, Me., whose request for the names of concealed gun permit holders – a public record in Maine – unleashed a firestorm. The paper withdrew its request.

The reason this sounds familiar, of course, is because of the controversy last December, when a White Plains, N.Y., newspaper (the Journal News) published the names and addresses of handgun permit holders. That newspaper, too, ended up succumbing to the outrage directed against it.

During the course of the latter controversy, the newspaper’s publisher, Janet Hasson, had this to say: “New York residents have the right to own guns with a permit and they also have a right to access public information.” Makes good sense to me. But not to the many public officials who, in each of these cases, rushed to make the information private.

Citizens who are reassured by this stampede to withhold information should consider: Secrecy is almost always the first instinct of politicians. That previous lawmakers have made a determination that the name and address of any handgun permit holder in New York State “shall be a public record” is evidence of an uncommonly enlightened understanding that certain kinds of information should be in the public domain. Why today’s readiness to deny that it is in the public interest for such information to be available? We seem to be in one of those recurring periods in our society when concerns about privacy regularly trump an allegiance to informed self-governance. Fear for loss of privacy is eminently reasonable. But we can’t afford to forget the cost of ignorance.

Nobody understood this better than Daniel Patrick Moynihan. As a New York senator, he made these remarks at a Hearing on Government Secrecy in 1997:

“Secrecy is the ultimate mode of regulation; the citizen does not even know that he or she is being regulated! It is a parallel regulatory regime with a far greater potential for damage if it malfunctions.”

The hearty appetite of leadership for secrecy is certainly exemplified by our current president. Barack Obama’s record on open information is shameful.

“Obama is the sixth administration that’s been in office since I’ve been doing Freedom of Information Act work. … It’s kind of shocking to me to say this, but of the six, this administration is the worst on FOIA issues. The worst. There’s just no question about it,” Katherine Meyer, a Washington lawyer who’s been filing FOIA cases since 1978, told POLITICO. “This administration is raising one barrier after another. … It’s gotten to the point where I’m stunned — I’m really stunned.”

So, who is out there to fight on the public’s behalf against the seduction of secrecy?

When I went to work for The Des Moines Register in 1981, we had three full-time media lawyers. They did all kinds of work for the company, but one task they undertook tirelessly was the fight for freedom of information across the state. As the leading member of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the Register worked in alliance with librarians, lawyers, educators and others to keep meetings open and records available to the public. This used to be true, in varying degrees, across the country. Now, a media lawyer in a newsroom is a rare thing indeed — and so is the assertive protection of public information. When people ask me what we are missing as newspapers relentlessly lose their footing, I think of many good answers. This may be the best.

We see the effect of this weakened commitment to fighting secrecy even at our strongest newspapers. One example lies in the long skirmish between The New York Times and Congress on President Obama’s terrorist “kill list” and our nation’s use of drones. The pattern is discouraging: The Times shares leaked information; Congress calls for an investigation. Unsettling as it is that public officials flail at the messenger instead of demanding more information, it’s troubling too to realize that the Times may be less vigorous than we’d hope in its fight to make information public. As Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote on Feb. 9:

“The real threat to national security is a government operating in secret and accountable to no one, with watchdogs that are too willing to muzzle themselves.

Top Times editors say that they are deeply committed to informing the public, but that they believe it’s only responsible to listen when government officials make a request. And, they emphasize, they often say no. Fair enough. But the bar should be set very high for agreeing to honor those requests. This one didn’t clear that bar.

What’s missing in the dark and ever-expanding world of drone warfare is a big helping of accountability, served up in the bright light of day.”

If journalists, however besieged and reduced in number, are essential as champions of open government, how did they stand on the question of newspapers seeking to bring gun-permit ownership to public light? The answer disturbed and surprised me. This comment from the Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins was typical: “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.”

But there are countless compelling reasons to publish data that have nothing to do with breaking the law. Some newspapers bravely (and wisely) publish the salaries of all public officials, as well as top salaries of executives of businesses in their communities. Some recently have published teachers’ classroom ratings. This kind of information is:

  1. always terrifically well-read, and
  2. guaranteed to provoke outrage.

“I’ll be robbed,” say the well-paid officials. “This isn’t a fair way to judge,” say the teachers. These predictable reactions do not negate the value of putting information into the hands of people to enable them to know themselves and their communities, to lead fuller lives and be better citizens.

When I was editor of The Des Moines Register, we were accustomed to publishing the names and addresses of those who had just given birth. Neighbors could learn that Jane and John down the street had a new baby girl, say, and drop by with a card. When a controversy arose over the kidnapping of a baby, health officials responded by demanding that the public records be closed down. It soon emerged that the few known kidnappings had been from hospitals, not from homes. The addresses remained unavailable.

When I first went to work at The New York Times, AIDS was not listed as a cause of death in obituaries. It was thought – as cancer had been long before it – to carry a stigma that would disgrace the dead. Thus readers were left scratching their heads over all the young men dying of “pneumonia.” Only when the accurate cause of death began to be used could New Yorkers understand that the faceless “plague” long so foreign-sounding to them was in fact the thing responsible for the death of that gifted artist they knew. Thus does accurate information shape public attitudes.

I used to give speeches with titles such as “What You Don’t Know WILL Hurt You.” Once, at Stanford, I spoke about the responsibility of the press to print the facts, no matter how painful that might be for some. I mentioned the need to cite suicide as the cause of death. A man scolded me during the Q-and-A, saying he was glad his local editor was more humane; he had simply ignored the cause of death in his son’s recent obituary. Afterward, a young woman came up to me and said: “I knew that boy. And when he died, we were all trying to figure out what had happened. What we learned instead was that adults don’t like to talk about painful things, and that you can’t count on newspapers to print the truth.”

So why didn’t journalists champion the side of openness in the post-Newtown Journal News story? I wondered this when I heard NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik say on KPCC in Los Angeles that the paper’s work was reminiscent of a “name and shame” effort by media outlets to identify sexual offenders. Following up with Folkenflik (who ended up adding me to an All Things Considered story on the matter that evening) and with others, I concluded that journalists had three primary critiques:

  • Citizens should not be given data without context.
  • Making the data public invaded the privacy of gun permit holders and made them feel unsafe.
  • This was a crusade on behalf of gun control.

All of these seem misguided to me. Analysis can surely be valuable, but providing “granular” data without context is not necessarily irresponsible. This raw data from public records is surely something that most people would find interesting (and many apparently did – the newspaper said the data had been viewed nearly 1.2 million times before it was taken down). Extracting generic trends does not replace the value of neighborhood-by-neighborhood understanding of specific details. To think that only journalists can handle such information is not only elitist but sorely out of touch with the times.

What the enormous national response to the map revealed is that we don’t really have on the individual level much understanding at all about who does own guns. The Journal News map showed how ordinary it is. This new understanding could lead to a lot of different things. “Wow. I’m amazed how common this is among my neighbors, whom I know and respect. Should I reconsider my kneejerk reaction?” Or, “My neighbors have guns. Do I feel differently about my kids being in their house?” In either case, it removes blinders. This is the kind of thing that can change debates, putting information out there that helps people grapple with a situation instead of just grinding out the same old arguments.

As for the publication’s making people feel like criminals: In whose eyes? Somehow to publish that information, it was assumed, is to imply that gun owners are doing a bad thing or are dangerous. Why? I know that conservative websites charged that this was the newspaper’s intent, but why would a journalist have seen it that way? Indeed, why would gun permit holders themselves feel so outraged? Gun ownership is legal. Gun owners stress that it is desirable. People press for “open carry” laws. Why are some suddenly angry to have it known that they have a permit?

Finally, the notion that publishing this kind of information could only be a crusade for gun control confounds me. Why assume this? Who can predict how it will change the debate? It could lead to an utter “normalization” of gun ownership. It could lead to a fueling of gun-control efforts. Who is to say where more information – and a greater understanding of one’s surroundings – will lead? One study in the wake of the 2008 Memphis Commercial Appeal publication of zip codes of gun owners found that burglaries declined 18 percent in ZIP codes with the most concealed-carry permits.

Why would we (particularly journalists) assert that the paper has taken a stance by the mere act of publication? Why not say instead that it has trusted the public with public information? That it has made public information accessible to people who aren’t likely to make the effort to get it themselves? Why aren’t journalists pushing back against the notion that we must not trust people to know how to handle information given to them?

Some asserted that it was the timing of the publication at this charged moment that conveyed the implication of guilt, and they do have a point. So here’s my prescription: What this paper did is expose how little we all understand, on a human-to-human level, the reality of gun ownership. Bravo for that! Let every newspaper in the country publish records on gun permits to the extent available to them in their state. Don’t associate it with a madman’s act. Just put it out there because you know the public can benefit: These are the facts on the ground. Let’s see where they lead. (Unfortunately, I fear that few publishers have the courage to withstand the criticism. Which is why those who understand the power of public information must persevere in pointing out the reasons it is so essential, rather than joining the horde of critics.) PBS’s MediaShift has compiled an intriguing compendium of innovative coverage of the issue, relying on data and social media. Perhaps it could help inspire editors to find strength in numbers and join this national effort.

This project would change our dreary stuck-in-a-rut national conversation about guns. I don’t know how, but I guarantee it would change it. When we hide from facts, we make poor public policy – or avoid making any policy at all. The human aversion to difficult truths, the eagerness of newspaper editors and publishers to avoid infuriating people and the readiness of public officials to resort to secrecy make a fine recipe for ignorance.

How dispiriting then, that journalists – who by necessity must be on the forefront of defending open information, however uncomfortable a role that may be – have given up their taste for this fight. This speaks of a craft that is losing its bearings – another lamentable effect, perhaps, of the weakening of legacy media.

Privacy is an enormously worrisome issue. Context often makes data more useful. No individual newspaper’s project is beyond criticism. But we must not allow these truths to blind us to the importance of an accurate picture of our society. Many citizens cheer on the public officials who respond to controversy by taking information out of the public domain. But this is not “protecting” the public. It is blinding the public — helping the public keep its head in the sand.

Moynihan’s excellent book, “Secrecy: The American Experience,” concludes this way:

“A case can be made that secrecy is for losers, for people who don’t know how important information really is. The Soviet Union realized this too late. Openness is now a singular and singularly American advantage. We put it in peril by poking along in the mode of an age now past. It is time to dismantle government secrecy, this most pervasive of cold war era regulations. It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness, which is already upon us.”

He wrote that in 1998. Fifteen years later, we are a long way from learning the lesson.

About Geneva Overholser

Geneva Overholser is director of the School of Journalism at USC Annenberg.

Comments

  1. I really like that quote from Senator Moynihan, and your pointing out that secrecy is the first instinct of government politicians.

    That said, i think you underestimate the extent to which technology is undermining privacy, and the value of privacy. There used to be a small cost in labor in getting information about individuals, which served as a deterrent to wholesale exposure of information. If there was compelling reason, a context, then it was worth it. But it wasn’t done simply because it could be. That tended to support privacy a little.

    That’s rapidly disappearing. Yes, we should not let national security interests, or pro-gun interests, or any special interest blind us. But I think the US needs to establish some sort of right for individuals to be forgotten.

    • Geneva Overholser says:

      I agree with your concern, JT, but I have had a feeling of late that public information has virtually NO champions. Elaine, your point is well-taken. I tried to note that it was permit-holders who were named in the records, not gun owners. But i surely do imply in the column, i acknowledge, that this is at least something of a proxy for ownership. Anyone know what percent of permit holders do NOT have guns? David, I think your paper behaved heroically, and was saddened at how little defense it got. Steve, a million thanks for helping spread the word on this.

  2. dean miller says:

    There are people who should not be permitted to defend journalism, particularly their own, and the White Plains newspaper leadership are prime examples. You don’t go after private legal behavior until and unless you can, with clarity, express a public interest. Hasson and Co. did neither and they bear a heavy, heavy burden. If White Plains had invested in two days of training using Bob Steele’s excellent book and methods, the staff would have arrived at defensible decisions. Instead we have this horrible precedent and its replay in Maine. This has nothing to do with newsroom budgets and everything to do with newsroom leadership. Among the stakeholders White Plains blithely ignored was journalism itself.

  3. I do not disagree AT ALL that the information should be public, and that a newspaper has every right to request it and to publish it. My problem with your use of the gun-permit data as an example is that you are characterizing it inaccurately. Permit data tells you who has a PERMIT, not who has a gun. It’s fine to publish that, but it doesn’t provide one additional piece of information about which houses contain guns — just who has permission to keep one there.

  4. David McKay Wilson says:

    Geneva,
    thanks so much for your reasoned take on The Journal News publication of the gun data. We’ve been attacked for all sides, including far too many journalists. It was a courageous story by our paper, and became part of the discussion in the debate on gun control in Albany. As an interesting aside, the public availability of the personal information became a bargaining chip in the negotiations that led to New York’s stricter gun laws.

    - David Wilson

    • Michael Caputo says:

      Geneva, I respect the notion that information shouldn’t be locked away. Journalist need to fight to make information open to all. But most critiques of the Journal News have nothing to do with the premise that information should be free – or not.

      Sorry, David, but the critique revolves around the story that the paper told. A story about how my neighbor might have a gun doesn’t move the ball forward. This premise that you used about people who have weapons was the reason for your map. You look at this presentation in its totality and wonder – so what does this tell us about the state of guns in the U.S? How much digging did the staff do on the information? My critique of the journalism is – not enough.

      Additionally, you map had out-of-date information. I lived in the Rockland and saw neighbors with gun permits who hadn’t lived in homes in the neighborhood for years. How much was work was done on the data? Again, you have to wonder.

      And finally you have to feel badly that this has become the poster child presentation for gun permit investigation. Maybe that’s not fair… maybe other news organizations have done a better job. But, you know, as a former political beat reporter, I remember my editor telling me that I better not get facts screwed up or out of context because it detracts from the basics of the political policy being debated.

      That’s what happened here.

  5. Geneva, thank you very much for your insightful points regarding the clamp-down on public information. Just last week another newspaper in North Carolina wrote a lengthy apology letter to the local sheriff and its readers, begging their forgiveness for daring to request gun permit records, which are public information. You mentioned a similar situation in Maine. The incidents are troubling for the prospects of public information. Already there are moves here in New York to keep pension data private, an oft-requested data set, particularly now with pension costs hamstringing so many budgets. Basically every interest group now has the playbook on shutting down access to information they want kept private. That’s what was really at stake in The Journal News debacle. And what was missed by so many “journalists” who quickly jumped on the “they didn’t present it right” bandwagon.

    FYI, I am the Journal News reporter who got the permit data here and who wrote the story that accompanied the gun map, which started this national controversy. Yes, an actual story accompanied the gun map. It’s a story that 3/4 of the people who looked at the map probably never read. The purpose of the map was to inform people about gun owners in their neighborhoods and the story asked if people should have access to more information about gun owners. The question was asked and answered in the story with most people saying names and addresses are out there but they don’t need any additional information. That’s why we did the story. No deeper analysis was needed. It just said, if you’re interested, here are the names of gun owners in your community. Also, if you want more information about gun owners most people don’t think you should have it. Why does it take a regression analysis to justify providing people information they have every right to know in its raw form or to even ask a basic question? Yes we could have done all kinds of fancy analytics with the data (and I’m certain we will since we are now one of the last organizations that will ever have access to it). But that wasn’t the story we were looking to tell. As for the value of the information? Each individual reader gets to decide the value the information holds for them. Some may not care, others may care a great deal. That’s how it should be.

    Someone also mentioned errors on the map. Those are regrettable and speak to the condition of the records as they are maintained by the government, not The Journal News’ use of the records. Any check of the records would have been done with the same government agency that maintained the data.

    Geneva, hit the deeper issues on the head. As journalists we should all be looking to avoid/reporting on the chill sweeping over open records.

    • Again — they’re not gun owners. They’re permit-holders. Just like someone with a driver’s license doesn’t necessarily own a car. It’s an important distinction, and it’s disappointing that you as the reporter can’t be bothered to make it.

      • That distinction is made clear in the map we ran: “Being included in this map does not mean the individual at a specific location owns a weapon, just that they are licensed to do so.”

        But we’re probably not going to repeat that statement every time we discuss guns on every forum Internet-wide.

        • So why not just be accurate when you talk about YOUR map, which you were not in your earlier comment? That’s what I don’t understand.

  6. Unfortunately the problem with this article is that it assumes journalists present information objectively and without bias. Sadly this is not true, journalists frequently misuse public information to misinform and manipulate the public, fail to check the information presented for accuracy, or sensationalize information to boost ratings and page hits. Reporting incorrect or biased information is just as bad as not reporting bad behavior by government officials. It seems as though journalism has become more about what’s good for the balance sheet rather than reporting the unbiased facts for the good of the people. I do agree with many of the points discussed in your article though, especially about the importance of government transparency. I would argue however that there is a big difference between transparency in the records of government and government officials behavior and who hold a gun permit. Knowing the salary of a public employee who is paid with taxpayer money is entirely different than knowing the name and address of permit holders. Knowing the causes of death of people is entirely different than publishing an interactive map of permit holders names and addresses including satellite imagery and street view photographs. If you are concerned about whether or not your neighbors are exposing your kids to guns maybe you should be a good parent and go get to know your neighbors and teach your kids what to do and not do around guns. What ever happened to personal responsibility? Just because some states have chosen to make gun permit information public record doesn’t mean it should be. That kind of information should at minimum be anonymized to preserve privacy and prevent people from being targeted.

  7. As a former journalist I strongly disagree with your desire to ” Let every newspaper in the country publish records on gun permits” for a few reasons. First, the information can be used by criminals to seek reprisals against cops and prison guards. Second, the addresses of domestic violence victims will be available to their abusers and opens the door to further abuse. Third, listing the home addresses of gun owners simply makes it too easy for house-breakers to pick up new supplies of guns to trade on the black market. Finally, if a news outlet follows your wisdom then, inevitably, there will be a crime committed that leads to an injury or death — and that’s when the news outlets’ legal teams will face lawsuits for the role they played in enabling the crime to take place. Thankfully in Virginia a new law was passed prohibiting the publication of conceal carry permit holders’ home addresses.

  8. A point of reassurance, for all those media companies who might have cold feet about requesting the data: You need no longer fear. The NRA has been doing it for years: http://t.co/nyTUVrzfem

  9. Journalists tend to PRESUME to know and speak for “the public interest” … but as a rhetorical expert, I assure you, that is usually presumptuous. :-)

  10. Exactly what “public interest” can be derived from revealing the names and home addresses of permit holders? Perhaps it’s also in the public interest to know what YOUR home address is, Geneva Overholser….

  11. You need no longer fear

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Geneva Overholser, director of the journalism school at our host institution, USC Annenberg, raises critical questions about the nature of public interest reporting in a time when information is easier than ever to obtain but concerns over privacy threaten to [...]

  2. [...] Geneva Overholser (a colleague from our first hitches at the Des Moines Register back in the 1980s) has said what I wanted to say. Whether you agree or disagree with the publication of the gun permit data, you should read Geneva’s Online Journalism Review post Secrecy is trumping public interest in gun control coverage. [...]

  3. [...] first article posted by OJR since the revamped website went live on Feb. 25 was an op-ed by Journalism Director Geneva Overholser about the importance of public interest when covering the [...]

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