Dear Reader | Paper’s publication of gun owner names, addresses provokes outrage, even from journalists; on lighter note, go Golson

Dear ReaderJanuary 7, 2013 

The shootings in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school horrified journalists just as it horrified the rest of the country. I know that we often pride ourselves on being hardened to such things, but ask anyone who has covered a tragedy and you’ll find that no matter their outer bluster, the experience left a scar on their emotions.

For journalists, however, such tragedy also is a summons to provide coverage that answers questions, helps put it into context, and shares the stories of heroism amid the loss. When it’s an issue that resonates across geographic boundaries, such as a mass shooting (I call it the “could it happen here?” effect), we search for ways to “localize” the news.

One of those efforts at localization has captured national attention and outrage: The (Westchester N.Y.) Journal’s publication of the names and a map of the addresses of 33,614 registered gun owners in their area. That has prompted threats to the paper’s staff members, refusals by some officials in other counties to release such information, and calls for legislation to permanently bar its release.

The New York paper obtained the information through the Freedom of Information Act. They published it just after the attack, when emotions were at their most raw on all sides.

For the record, The Sun News has no interest in publishing the names of those in our area who have concealed/carry permits. But that doesn’t mean we think such information shouldn’t be available through the FOIA.

Al Tompkins, senior faculty member at the non-profit Poynter Institute for journalism, explained why more eloquently than I could:

“Timeliness is not reason enough to publish this information, though there are important reasons — including public safety — that journalists regularly invade people’s privacy.

“Journalists broadcast and publish criminal records, drunk driving records, arrest records, professional licenses, inspection records and all sorts of private information. But when we publish private information we should weigh the public’s right to know against the potential harm publishing could cause.”

In this case, I believe the harm of publishing outweighed any benefit to sharing the information, an easy opinion to hold with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight. But look at it from another angle. What if there were allegations that someone was allowing felons to obtain permits illegally? Without being able to determine who had the permits, no news organization, or any group, would be able to cross-check those permits with court records to determine whether the allegations were true?

Headliner Everett Golson

We’ve been pulling out the stops in efforts to highlight the successes of former Myrtle Beach High star Everett Golson as he prepares to lead Notre Dame in the Bowl Championship Series. We sent staff writer Alan Blondin to Miami to cover Golson in the days leading up to the game, something that wasn’t in our budget, but was the right thing to do anyway.

On Monday, many readers did a double-take over our print headline that said “Golson grounded despite his success.”

Technically, the headline was correct, because the word “grounded” has multiple meanings. We were saying what the online headline, which doesn’t have to be whittled down to five or six words to fit on the printed page, said clearly: “Golson stays grounded despite success, spotlight at Notre Dame.”

For those who suffered a momentary panic, we apologize.

As a graduate of the University of Missouri, I never thought I’d say this, but, “Go Irish.”

Win or lose Monday night, there is no question that Golson’s performance has been extraordinary.

Contact CAROLYN CALLISON MURRAY at cmurray@thesunnews.com or follow her on Twitter at TSN_ccmurray.

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