Thursday, January 10, 2013

Just because you can, should you?

Poynter asks: Do journalists have the right to do whatever they want with public records?

The case in question was the publication by The Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y of the names and addresses of local gun owners.  This was in the wake of the Newtown shootings.

The names and addresses were all public record, which is to say -- the information was available for whoever took the time and effort to mine it.  And as with all public records, perfectly legit for reporters to publish.

And yet: just because we have the right to publish something under the First Amendment -- should we?  Where does the ethical reasoning come in?

Many issues to consider, among them the fact that data can be wrong or misleading.  Back to Poynter:

Yes, public records can be obtained by anybody. That’s thanks to public policy decisions that certain government-held knowledge ought to be passively accessible to any individual upon request.
But when a journalist chooses to copy that information, frame it in a certain (inherently subjective) context, and then actively push it in front of thousands of readers and ask them to look at it, he’s taken a distinct action for which he is responsible.
Good data journalists (I talk to some of them below) will tell you that data dumps are not good journalism.
Data can be wrong, misleading, harmful, embarrassing or invasive. Presenting data as a form of journalism requires that we subject the data to a journalistic process.
We should think of data as we think of any source. They give you information, but you don’t just print everything a source tells you, verbatim. You examine the information critically and hold yourself to certain publishing standards — like accuracy, context, clarity and fairness.
There's also the damage that publication can do to an individual.  Thanks to the internet, once you name names, accurate or not, that info never goes away. 

Back to the ethics involved -- should you or shouldn't you? -- Poynter offers a quick checklist down at the bottom of the piece that might help you answer the question.  bk

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