Technology activists often invoke the maxim, “information wants to be free.”

In one way, the line is intended to undercut the monetary value of information, be it news stories, Hollywood films or Top 40 hits.

But the adage can mean more than money. It’s used to justify breaking barriers that limit access to information and developing technologies that make it easier to find and use. When a data journalist uses programming to scrape the salaries of public employees and make them searchable online, he’s trying to free that information – take it from the confines of a bureaucratic budget and tell citizens who they’re paying and how much.

But when a suburban New York newspaper mapped data identifying pistol permit holders in December, its staff demonstrated the problems unleashed when we free information without critical ethical reasoning.

A response to tragedy

In the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the Journal News in Westchester County, New York, made freedom of information requests for pistol permit holders in its home county and neighboring Rockland County. The paper published the permit information, including the names and addresses of the permit holders, in an interactive map Dec. 22.

The data covered all permit types – residential, business, target and hunting among them – but for pistols only. Because New York does not require permits for rifles and shotguns, those weapons were not included.

The interactive functionality allowed users to view specific names and addresses of permit holders, pinpointed on a scalable map.

Blowback

 

Response to the Journal News staff choices was swift and fierce. Outraged readers posted comments on the maps page, ranging from legitimate concerns – “This is the single most irresponsible and dangerous piece of ‘journalism’ I have ever seen” – to personal attacks on the staff, including saying using guns against liberals would be “like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Conservative commentators delivered scathing assessments, as well. They called for a variety of protests, including pressuring Journal News owner Gannett Co. and publishing personally identifying information about the paper’s staff online. Bloggers heeded the call, rooting out personal information and publishing text and maps in response.

The paper defended its editorial choices, saying readers “are understandably interested to know about guns in their neighborhoods.” It continued to resist pressure and mounting calls to remove the data until Jan. 18, when staff ended the interactive features, meaning the maps were no longer scalable and did not return names and addresses.

Publisher Janet Hasson wrote that the change came because the data had been up for almost a month, giving anyone who wanted to search a chance to do so, and because it would become outdated. Her letter to readers said the decision should not be viewed as a concession that the information had no value.

“On the contrary, we’ve heard from too many grateful community members to consider our decision to post information contained in the public record to have been a mistake. Nor is our decision made because we were intimidated by those who threatened the safety of our staffers. We know our business is a controversial one, and we do not cower.”

Ethics by degrees

Hasson’s letter shows just how clearly the paper’s staff missed the point of ethical reasoning in setting the gun data free. The issue is not that the data have no value in serving the public interest. It is that the paper’s presentation of the data failed to achieve that value. The paper shouldn’t have stopped at freeing the data. It should have reported on it.

The ethical concerns are apparent, and the Journal News could have done many things to mitigate problems presented by publishing the data.

Risk of crime
Although the risk was at times wildly overstated, the maps did provide an easy means for criminals to determine which homes had a permit – and possibly guns to steal – and which did not – and thus no means to use lethal force in defense. The Journal news could have easily minimized the harm by clustering the data into block-level analyses or mapping density of permits in varying areas of the counties.

Accuracy
As any data journalist will attest, records can give the illusion of reliability but often present accuracy problems. They have a short shelf life. In this case, permit holders could have died or moved since the time of requesting a license, so a mapped house didn’t necessarily have a permit. Or they can appear to say one thing but mean another, such as permit holders who never actually purchase a gun. The Journal News did run disclaimers noting these ideas, but the more ethical choice would have been to acknowledge these flaws made the data fraught and not run them at the individual level.

Context
But even if the data were exactly accurate, truth does not come from accuracy alone. It comes from accuracy in context. In this case, the critical context is what was missing from the data. The records contained nothing on rifles, shotguns or the very assault-type weapons used at Sandy Hook. More importantly, legal permit data do not cover a critical element of gun violence, illegal weapons.

To achieve journalism in the public interest, the Journal News needed to go further in its analysis of the data and connect the records to important trends and issues. For instance:

  • compare permit data to burglary reports and uncover whether and how legal weapons slip into illegal use
  • analyze crime data against permits to examine how often legal weapons are used in self-defense and when that use is lethal
  • examine patterns in permit data, such as clusters within neighborhoods, unlawful permits to felons or permits in homes with a domestic violence conviction or restraining order

Revenge effects

But perhaps the greatest problem presented by the Journal News approach and ethical reasoning is the damage to support for public information itself. The publication gave rise to new and renewed calls to shield gun ownership records from public inspection. New York immediately moved to bar disclosure of gun owners’ names in its registration database. Similar or broader proposals are on the table in Arkansas, California, Montana and Virginia.

The Journal News argued it was operating in the public interest in pursuing and publishing public data. But the choices it made in doing so have directly threatened access to that information.

The case is an excellent example of what are sometimes called the “revenge effects” of technology. When we develop a technology to solve a problem, it can present unintended consequences that blow back against the original intent and usefulness. For instance, hospitals use digital devices to monitor patients’ medications and reduce medical errors brought by incorrect delivery. But if those devices are set to deliver narcotics on schedule rather than patient perception of pain, they’re encouraging overuse.

Advances in data journalism have been important and widespread. But they’ve also been fast. Free and simple tools allow us to analyze and visualize data, including output like the Journal News maps, yet we may not have caught up with important discussions of how ethics are implicated in this kind of work and what our choices mean for our audience and our communities.

Missed opportunity

A paper in Maine that had requested public information on concealed weapon permit holders earlier this month squandered the chance to have exactly that conversation. The Bangor Daily News came under intense pressure after filing a records request for the permit data, including a tweet from the Maine governor that he has his permit at the ready. On Friday the paper rescinded its request and assured its audience it had not intended to invade privacy by publishing names and addresses.

But if the staff had ethics squarely in mind about why they sought the information and how they would use it, they should have opened that discussion up to the public, rather than buckling on the freedom of information request. The paper’s editor noted, “Although we regret causing this controversy, it has not dulled our will to ask difficult questions to keep our governments accountable and help make Maine a better place.” How can it ask those questions without full access to available public information?

News organizations have a responsibility to seek public information and hold people and institutions accountable. They need to champion access to information at every turn. 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 to govern. If they merely free information without reporting or reasoning, they put access – and journalism – at risk.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver is an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication and associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. Long interested in the implications of digital media on journalism and public interest communication, Culver focuses on the ethical dimensions of social tools, technological advances and networked information. She combines these interests with a background in law and the effects of boundary-free communication on free expression. She also serves as visiting faculty for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.