This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2012 - Mine public information from data bases; present it in an interactive map and provide a fresh, local angle on a big national story: Publishing that sort of information sounds like a no-brainer, particularly when the story is the biggest one in the nation - the murder of 27 people, including 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Ct.
But the decision of the Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., to publish the names and addresses of thousands of handgun permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties has proved to be anything but a no-brainer. White Plains is about 50 miles from Newtown.
Local and national gun owners are angry, complaining that the publication invades their privacy and provides information that could be used by criminals planning home invasions. The angriest critics went so far as to publish the home addresses and phone numbers of reporters, editors and the paper’s publisher, Janet Hasson. One commenter wrote about the publisher's house, “Nice house. Wooded lot, too. Lots of places to hide.”
Media critics are divided about the propriety of publishing the names and addresses. NPR quotes Geneva Overholser, director of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism, as defending the Journal News’ action as relevant to the national controversy. The newspaper itself said the information was important and public.
But Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute criticized the paper for holding up gun owners to ridicule.
The situation presents a classic ethics dilemma: Is it always ethical to publish information about an important matter of controversy as long as publication is legal?
The answer is no. Just because information is public and publishing it is legal, doing so is not necessarily the right thing to do.
A Republican New York state senator thinks he knows how to solve this ethical dilemma. He proposes legislation to remove the information about gun ownership from public records, as a number of states have.