Normally, us ink-stained wretches of the press stick up for each other and support the various methods used to keep the public informed about the issues of the day.
Yet every now and then a line gets crossed that makes me ashamed to be a member of the journalism profession. This includes the recent decision by a newspaper in Westchester, N.Y., to publish the names and addresses of registered handgun owners.
The Journal News even released an interactive, color-coded map showing where those folks live, putting people in peril — including abused women under protective orders and hiding from those who’ve victimized them. Thanks to the newspaper, everyone now knows where they reside.
This deplorable and irresponsible act by the paper makes a mockery of the First Amendment right ensuring a free press. Not only did it violate the privacy of innocent law-abiding Americans, there’s a strong suspicion that the Westchester newspaper did so simply to capitalize on the recent school-shooting deaths in Connecticut and the accompanying gun-control debate.
Despite the constitutional right to do so, the struggle to maintain a free press in America has been an ongoing one — and the regrettable actions by the Westchester, N.Y., paper only taint the mission of responsible news personnel as a whole.
For example, the Freedom of Information Act has been a useful tool to gain material of importance to citizens which governmental agencies sometimes are reluctant to release without such a provision. The New York publication used the Freedom of Information Act, not to secure details regarding expenditures of public funds or some other worthy purpose, but misused this well-intended law to obtain names and addresses of innocent gun owners.
One thing I learned in journalism school was that the press must operate with a sense of social responsibility, in which the desire to print certain information is weighed against the potential harm to an innocent party. For instance, you wouldn’t identify someone who comes forward to expose illegal activities of the Mafia because it obviously would get that person killed.
In other words, printing something simply because it is a matter of public record — or just because you can — is no justification for the trouble this can cause.
I don’t profess to know the political leanings of my counterparts at the Westchester Journal News, but it is interesting how they seemed to make a certain statement by targeting gun ownership in the wake of the Newtown tragedy.
They just as easily could have published the names and addresses of those who create or disseminate video games with violent content and the manufacturers and sellers of anti-depressant prescription medications. Those elements also seem to bear some responsibility for the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and those elsewhere.
And while they were at it, why didn’t they choose to publicize the names and addresses of abortion doctors/clinics, which some could argue have resulted in snuffing out more young lives than all the shootings, other murders and accidents combined?
However, the paper is only suggesting a link between what happened in Newtown and legal gun owners, which is grossly unfair.
I have heard some newspaper people even debate whether the names, pictures and addresses of convicted sex offenders should be printed. After all, this also is a matter of public record, and the case can be made that informing families of their existence would seem a legitimate endeavor because pedophiles tend to have a pattern of such behavior.
In that case, the prevailing opinion has been that it would be unfair to spotlight convicted sex offenders since they have paid their debt to society and deserve the chance to show they have been reformed.
But there is simply no justification for publicizing the names and addresses of gun owners who have committed no crime and have every right to arm themselves against the burglars, psychopaths and others who do break the law.
If the goal of the Westchester, N.Y., newspaper was purportedly a safer society (I’m really going to great lengths to give it the benefit of the doubt here), then it has created just the opposite effect.
For one thing, criminals now know which homes they can target, where owners don’t have guns handy to defend themselves and their property. A deterrent factor has been removed.
Fortunately, the story does have somewhat of a happy ending, which fits into the turnabout-is-fair-play category. After the gun owners’ map was released, Christopher Fountain, a website logger — or “blogger” — began posting the names, addresses and contact information of the newspaper’s publisher and editor, and staff members who worked on the map. Readers came up with information for other employees and Fountain also listed them.
I say “Bravo” to that effort and may it serve to disarm such irresponsible acts by the press in the future.
Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 719-1924 or email@example.com.